HUMANS & SOCIE TY
Huge ‘word gap’
may not exist
Poor kids hear as many words
as better-off kids, study says
BY BRUCE BOWER
A scientific takedown of a famous finding
known as the 30-million-word gap may
upend popular notions of how kids learn
Research conducted over 20 years ago
concluded that by age 4, poor children
hear an average of 30 million fewer words
than their more well-off peers. Since
then, many researchers have accepted
the reported word gap as a driver of later
reading and of writing problems among
But here’s the rap on the word gap: It
doesn’t exist, says a team led by psychologist Douglas Sperry of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana. In a redo of the
original study, virtually no class differences appeared in the number of words
addressed to young children by a primary
caregiver, his team reports in a study to be
published in Child Development.
What’s more, after including speech
spoken to children by various caretakers,
as well as family members’ conversations
that the youngsters could easily overhear,
kids in some poor and working-class com-
munities heard more words on average
than middle-class youngsters, the scien-
tists say. “It’s time to turn a skeptical eye
to the word-gap claim,” Sperry says.
Researchers usually treat word learning as a product of one or both parents
regularly talking to a child. But different,
equally effective ways exist for children to
learn vocabulary, Sperry says. Depending
on culture and community, word learning
depends on a main caretaker talking to a
child, many caretakers talking to a child
and youngsters overhearing family members talking, he says (SN: 2/17/18, p. 22).
The original word-gap study included
42 children in Kansas from four communities — poor, working class, middle
class or wealthy professional. Sperry’s
group analyzed data on word use collected during home observations of
42 children in five communities — poor
whites in South Baltimore, poor blacks
in Alabama, working-class (largely blue-collar) whites in Indiana and Chicago,
and middle-class (largely white-collar)
whites in Chicago.
Videotaped home observations began
when children were 18 to 30 months old
and continued intermittently until kids
reached 32 to 48 months. Most primary
caregivers were children’s mothers.
Primary caregivers in poor, black
Alabama families directed an average of
1,838 words per hour to their children.
That’s close to the 2,153 words per hour
for high-income, white caregivers in
Kansas in the original word-gap study.
The earlier study reported that primary
caregivers on welfare in Kansas spoke
an average of 616 words per hour to
their children, about one-third the total
Everybody’s talking In two studies about 20 years apart, researchers eavesdropped on
families to tally how many words young children hear per hour. The new findings (colored bars)
contradict an alleged “word gap” between poorer and more well-off kids found in the original
Kansas study (white bars), which looked only at words uttered to children by primary caregivers.
spoken to poor, black children in the new
study. Primary caregivers from working-class and middle-class families in the
new study uttered an average of 1,048 to
1,491 words per hour to youngsters.
Accounting for multiple caregivers
increased the average number of words
spoken hourly to children in each
community by at least 17 percent. In
Alabama’s poor, black households, that
boosted words heard by 58 percent.
In addition, kids in those households
overheard an average of 3,203 words per
hour. Eavesdropping figures reached no
higher than about 2,500 words per hour
in the other communities. Greater numbers of older siblings in the poor, black
families contributed to that disparity,
the researchers suspect.
The results convincingly reject claims
of a word gap for poor children, says cultural anthropologist Jennifer Keys Adair
of the University of Texas at Austin.
White, middle-class parents and many
educators wrongly assume that vocabulary learning always works best via
one-on-one interactions of parents with
children, or teachers with grade school
students, Adair says. That assumption
may not apply to kids from other cultural backgrounds. Adair has found,
for instance, that first-graders from
Latin American immigrant families —
who were allowed to devise classroom
projects, collaborate with one another
and ask questions without raising their
hands — did especially well three years
later on state English assessments.
But some child researchers say the
new study falls short of showing that
poor kids are generally exposed to as
much language as better-off peers.
“Overhearing language about death and
taxes — topics of interest to adults — can
never be as effective for language learning
as participating in ... conversations about
what matters to children,” psychologist
Roberta Golinkoff of the University
of Delaware in Newark and colleagues
write in a commentary that will appear
in the same journal.
Sperry and his colleagues plan next to
study the role that overheard speech and
social context play in language learning. s
How many words per hour kids from different income levels hear
Baltimore Kansas Kansas Kansas Alabama Indiana Chicago Chicago
POOR WORKING CLASS MIDDLE