30 Million Word Gap By Age 3

Teachers have known for years that some children come to kindergarten with a wealth of literary experience and a strong vocabulary while others lag far behind their peers even from the first day of school. Over the years, these children continue to struggle with learning to read and most never catch up with their peers in school performance. We now have the research that tells us how important early language development really is for children. Betty Hart and Todd Risley studied 42 children from Kansas City welfare, working class and professional families from birth to age 3. During the study, Hart and Risley observed the children in the home environment in order to track the type of oral language and vocabulary experiences that each child had during these critical early years. Researchers state, “By the time the children were 3 years old, trends in amount of talk, vocabulary growth, and style of interaction were well established and clearly suggested widening gaps to come.” By age 3, children living in professional families had a recorded vocabulary size of 1,116 words with average utterances per hour of 310. Children in the working class families had a recorded vocabulary size of 749 words with average utterances per hour of 223. Welfare children had a recorded vocabulary size of only 525 words with only 168 utterances per hour. Hart and Risley point out, “a linear extrapolation from the averages in the observational data to a 100-hour week shows the average child in the professional family with 215,000 words of language experience, the average child in a working-class family provided with 125,000 words, and the average in a welfare family with 62,000 words of language experience.” In a year, this is a difference of 11.2 words for the child living with professional parents while only 3.2 million words for a child living in a welfare family. The difference over three years would be 45 million words for the child in a professional family versus only 13 million words for the child living in poverty. Thus, an estimated 30-32 million word gap by age 3. Follow up studies done with these children at ages 5 and 9 continued to show the same gaps as were evident at age 3.

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