You may have already heard of this term called the “word gap”. If not, the word gap refers to a study published in the early 1990s that revealed a discrepancy to the tune of 30 million words between how many words affluent babies heard by the age of three compared to their less privileged counterparts. More recent research shows that this “word gap” plays a huge role in reinforcing the achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic statuses (SES).1
This research doesn’t just illustrate the effects of income and class inequality on American children. It gives us hope for the future, too. More importantly, it forces us to recognize some areas where everyone can improve.
The point is, it’s easier to stack the odds for kids’ success than we had previously thought. The research had already observed that kids from more affluent families tend to develop linguistic and cognitive skills faster than those from less advantaged families.2 That was pretty depressing as a standalone fact. But now that we know the causation – words and verbal engagement – solutions become more tangible.
In her book on the topic, Thirty Million Words, Dr. Dana Suskind writes that the real indicator of a child’s learning development is “the early language environment: how much and how a parent talked to a child.” She heralds the idea that children in lower socioeconomic groups have the potential to catch up to their higher SES counterparts if their parents choose to engage with them early and often, developing their language skills and encouraging their progress.
The research also shows that most of us, regardless of affluence or education, are way off the mark when we self-evaluate our engagement with our kids. In one survey, 99% of participating parents rated themselves as on or above average when it came to talking to their babies. Of the parents who rated themselves way above average, only 20% were in the 80th percentile or higher.3 Oops.
No need to stress, though. Results of language development studies show that there’s an easy way of helping parents improve their verbal engagement with their kids. Parents who participated in one study consistently made positive changes to how much they talked to their baby when researchers gave them feedback to show them how many words they actually spoke to their baby.
Suskind argues that we are all given a certain potential in the genetics that we are born with, but that potential can be “mitigated, destroyed, or achieved by our second round of luck, the parental language environment” in with we are raised.
No matter the circumstances, every family has the chance to prioritize creating a positive language environment for our kids. It’s the biggest opportunity we’re given to help them succeed throughout their lives.
Here at VersaMe, we’re obsessed with empowering parents to fast-track their children’s development. We created the Starling to help keep you accountable for how much you’re actually talking to your little ones, and we have resources all over the website to help you boost your parent-child interactions. Check them out in the research center, on the blog, and more!
- Hart, Betty, and Todd Risley. “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.” American Educator 1.4 (2003): 30-35.
- Greg J. Duncan, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Pamela Kato Klebanov, “Economic Deprivation and Early Childhood Development,” Child Development 65 no. 2 (1994): 296-318.
- Gilkerson, Jill, and Jeffrey A. Richards. Impact of Adult Talk, Conversational Turns, and TV During the Critical 0-4 Years of Child Development. LENA Technical Report, n.d. Print.