Talking to Young Children: Words Count

30 Million Words: Worlds of Difference

In 2003, early childhood development researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published a paper entitled “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.” In this study, Hart and Risley studied the language acquisition processes of children from 42 families across three different categories: professional families, middle-income families and families on welfare. The results they found were astonishing. By the time the children reached four years of age, the average child of a professional family heard almost 45 million words. The average child of a working class family heard around 26 million words. And the average child of a family on welfare heard just short of 13 million words.

That’s a gap of 13 million words between welfare families and working families. It’s a gap almost 30 million words between welfare families and professional families. Since the publication of this study, these numbers have been contested – but we’ll get to that later.

Those weren’t the only differences they found. The nature of the words varied as well. The children of professional families heard an average ratio of six affirming words to one discouraging word per hour. The children of working families heard an average ratio of twelve affirming words to seven discouraging words per hour. And the children of families one welfare heard an average ratio of five affirming words to eleven discouraging words per hour.

What These Numbers Mean

Research shows early intervention strategies for parents and kids yield positive results. Longitudinal studies, such as the Abecedarian Project, clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of early intervention programs on young children, regardless of the socio-economic status of their families. And people often misunderstand studies such as “The Early Catastrophe” because factors that skew the data go unnoticed:

  • Lower-income parents are less likely to have been exposed to post-secondary education, thus limiting their overall vocabulary, which in turn limits the number of unique words they may be able to speak to their children.
  • Parents with lower incomes often work more than one job, which makes them less likely to have free time to spend with their children, thus decreasing the time they have to speak with their children.
  • Lower-income parents often are in single-parent households, further exacerbating the time available to speak with their children
  • Parents with lower incomes are less likely to know about recent studies and trends in parenting, which stress the important differences between discipline and punishment. This may partially explain the disparity between lower-income families and upper-income families in the use of affirming as opposed to discouraging words.

In addition, the study only included 42 families. While this enough to make solid statistical projections, subsequent studies including more families have reached different conclusions, placing the word-gap much lower – closer to five million.

How to Address the Word Gap

The key thing to understand about the word gap is that the issue is not one of socio-economic status.

The issue is knowledge, and the understanding that knowledge creates a foundation for the future. Not knowledge in terms of formal education or the number of degrees parents get. But knowledge that speaking positive words to children early and often helps ensure their future success.

You don’t have to search very far to find exceptions to the points in the study. It’s easy to find high-income parents who barely exchange more than 20 positive words with their children per day. You can find middle-income parents who speak both positive and negative words to their children each day. And you can find lower-income parents who shower their children with words of affection from sunup to sundown. The answer is simple. Parents need to understand the importance of positive, verbal engagement with their children, right from the moment they’re born.