Cliff’s Notes: What is the 30 Million Word Gap—And What Does It Mean for Your Child?

on April 22, 2020
30 Million Word Gap

As a parent, research studies and concepts are tossed at you often—and you can feel like you haven’t done your homework if you’re caught off-guard. We’re here to help you demystify what’s out there, and put those theories into practice to help your child grow. Let’s start with a big one: The 30 Million Word Gap.

What is the 30 Million Word Gap?

In 1993 researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that “children from high-income families hear up to 30 million more words by the age of four than children from low-income families.” 

That’s a pretty hefty claim and one that can feel really overwhelming, so it’s worth taking a moment to untangle the study and understand what it means—and what it means for your child.

For two and a half years, Hart and Risely studied 42 families of differing socioeconomic status, meeting monthly and tape recording the young children’s (from 7 months to 3 years) language environments. They found the children in the upper income households were spoken to significantly more often than their lower income counterparts. They used those numbers to extrapolate over the child’s waking hours to arrive at that 30 million number aggregate number that forms the difference by age four. While the original study also touched on qualitative aspects of the language as well (vocabulary, pace of talk, tone, eye contact, etc.), that information didn’t get nearly as much attention.

The findings sparked endless debate, as one would expect for research summarized under the heading: The Early Catastrophe. Programs and policies based upon the research exploded, including the founding of the Thirty Million Words Initiative by Dana Suskind. That Initiative organized home interventions to teach parents (especially those in low-income areas) how to speak to their children more and how to speak to them better, and garnered positive impact on those children’s test scores (you can watch a video showing some of their effects here).

So why is this a hot button issue again?
In the last two years, the debate was reignited, and the number isn’t believed to be quite as dramatic—partially because new automated technology like LENA has been developed to arrive at more accurate numbers and partially because the original sample wasn’t as representative as modern standards would dictate. NPR has a great article that summarizes the counterpoints to the original study, while still acknowledging that “the underlying desire to help kids is still pretty compelling.”

What’s most interesting to Wunder (and we think to most parents) is how that original study pairs with recent findings from neuro-imaging studies at Harvard and MIT.

As scientists have spent more time examining early development, modern studies show that the language areas of the brain (the Broca’s area) are actually most stimulated by interactive talk.

In short: It’s not just how much you say but how you say it. 

The MIT/Harvard study showed that conversation turns are more critical to helping language development than giving your baby a laundry list of words. Back-and-forth exchanges boost the brain’s response to language, regardless of socio-economic status.

While there might be an achievement gap, the types of conversations you have are far more important than the quantity. So it’s important for families of all levels to focus on modeling language types in those early stages to help make sure all children are on a level-language playing field. 

That’s why we believe a monitoring both word and conversation count is the way to go. It’s important to keep an eye on both the quality and quantity of conversation you’re having with your kids.

So, how can I provide diverse language examples to my child?

It’s important to engage your child in various types of language. Sitting down and trying to come up with 30 million vocabulary words isn’t going to better prepare them for middle school, but introducing them to cognitive stimulation and conversational skills at a young age does. 

Try some of these techniques:

  • When pointing things out to your child, look back at them and maintain eye contact to impress the vocabulary word
  • Play songs and sing along to promote memory throughout the day
  • Integrate counting throughout the day, for example ticking off their toes while you are changing their diaper. 
  • Identify noises you hear, say while you are on walk
  • Offer your child choices (keeping in mind that you’ll want to be happy with any of their options
Ask your child thought-provoking questions that guide them to: 
  • Come up with their own ideas
  • Think about something else he/she did recently that's related
  • Lead them to think about the real world outside the book you’re reading

    Wunder can help. Our app tailors activities to your child’s age and development, and features an entire section of ideas focused around improving language and literacy skills. Sign up to join our waitlist today.



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