Relying on the 30 Million Word Gap To Shape Early Childhood Policy

Around 25 years ago, Betty Hart and Todd Risley put together an influential study which quantified a stunning 30 million word gap between the number of words a wealthy child hears before the age of three and the number of words heard by a poor child within the same span. The findings of this study shocked many early childhood advocates into action, with multiple research initiatives and initiatives at the school/community level being funded in hopes of educating low-income parents on how to expose their children to richer language and what communication styles work best to increase vocabulary potential in their children.

Hart and Risley’s study has been cited a staggering 8,000 times and has served as the impetus for initiatives such as Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail and funding increases to Head Start and Early Head Start. However, the study now finds itself at the center of controversy after a new study conducted last April attempted and failed to reach the same conclusions. 

Is there really a stratified word gap?

The new study, Reexamining the Verbal Environments of Children from Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds by Sperry, Sperry and Miller observed children in households of differing socioeconomic statuses and their interactions with family members. Rather than coming to the conclusion of a direct 30 million word deficit between children of high-income households and children of low-income households, the study found that when multiple caregivers were brought into the equation (which is a high-probability situation in a household of working-class parents), the gap narrowed and sometimes disappeared.

One of the key criticisms of the Hart and Risley study is that their narrow sample of 42 families eliminated the nuance and idiosyncratic variance that a larger study would have shed light on. The study’s lack of scope not only misidentified a problem in terms too simple, but it also opened the door for racial, cultural, and linguistic bias. In short, language quality and types of communication were earmarked for high quality if they coincided with white middle-class ways of speaking. Variances based on differences in race and culture were often written off as inferior through the lens of the Hart and Risley study.

Did the original study still do some good?

Those who still attribute merit to the 30 million word gap believe the new study wasn’t actually a replication of the original at all. Advocates point out that the original study compared families from “professional” backgrounds and those within the “welfare” system, while the new study stratified high-income families and low-income families. Believers in the Hart and Risley methodology still contend that the home is the crucial space for early language development and that low-income children remain on the wrong end of things regardless of racial or cultural backgrounds.

Regardless, both studies come to a middle ground when it comes to the importance of facilitating proper and complex language development in early childhood. Both studies stress the importance of building a dialogue with children from an early age, regardless of socioeconomic status, in hopes of getting them to think critically about language and employ it on their own accord. However, it’s the type and tenor of support for low-income families in regards to early childhood language development which is now under scrutiny from both sides.

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