The 30 million word gap (or why it’s so important to talk to your pre-school child)

One of the things that most parents know is that we should talk to our children. But what I didn’t know when I became a mother was why this was so important and what the impact of talking to my child was.  I didn’t know how much was enough and  whether there were particular topics I should be talking to my child about? These were the questions I set out to answer.

The importance of talking to your child has now been established by multiple studies but one of the first and most comprehensive was performed by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Back in the 1960s, Hart and Risley were two young researchers based originally at the University of Kansas. Both were committed to improving the fortunes of children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. Todd Risley was known as a visionary with a deep, uncompromising drive to do what he believed was right. He cared deeply about performing research that mattered and made a difference to the lives of children.

Hart and Risley’s original work focussed on designing a programme to be run with pre school age children in a nursery environment. The programme was designed to build the language of these youngsters. Working with children from both an impoverished area of Kansas City as well as those of professors at the University of Kansas, they looked to build the language of the children and see if they could increase the rate of vocabulary growth. They initially had considerable success. The children responded positively to the activities, the size of their vocabulary increased and there was a marked spurt in their rate of growth. However despite this promising start, they found that their work didn’t have a lasting impact on the children they were trying to help. Although the children responded to the activities they conducted with them, once the programme ended, the children’s vocabulary growth reverted back to its original trajectory.

Rather than be deterred, Todd and Betty turned their focus towards the children’s environment at home. They started to observe children in their home environments with their parents. Their ambition was, to use their own words, to record “everything.” Because they didn’t know what was important or irrelevant they tried to capture as much information as they could about how parents interacted with their children. They set out to capture every word spoken to the children, they transcribed the results and analysed their findings. What they found were huge differences in how parents interact with their children and these differences had an enormous impact on the children.

They observed 42 children once a month for an hour in their own homes from when they were 7-9 months old and until they were 36 months old. They made sure they had a range of children from different socio-economic backgrounds, and that the study included boys and girls, white and African-American children, and first, second and third or later born children.

In total they observed over 1300 hours of interactions and it took them a painstaking 6 years to analyse the data. But the effort was worth it. What they found surprised even them.

They discovered that parents differ markedly in the amount that they talk to their children. Some parents were talking to their children three times as often as other parents. Some parents were talking to their child for 40 minutes of every hour and some for less than 15 minutes.  Some children heard over 2000 words per hour, some as little as 616 words.

Secondly, there was a strong relationship between the amount parents talked to their children and the number of different words they used and the number of different words the child used. The greater the number of words the parents used, the more words the child used. Some parents used under 1000 different words and their children knew on average just over 500 words by the time the child was approaching three. Other parents used on average over 2000 different words and their children used over 1000 words. 86-98% of the words heard spoken by the child had also been used by the parents.  (No more blaming what they heard in the playground then on their bad language.)

Hart and Risley went on to estimate the differences in cumulative experience between the most talkative and taciturn families. Working on the assumptions of a 14 hour day, children in the families using over 2000 words per hour would hear 11.2 million words a year compared to a child in a family using 616 words per hour hearing 3.2 million words. Multiply this by four and children in the talkative families will have experienced 45 million words compared to the less talkative families 13 million by the time they are going to school. In other words, some children had far more opportunities to learn language before they reached school than others. Over 30 million more opportunities to be precise.

Hart and Risley then went on to look at the performance of the same children when they were 9 or 10 years old. What they found was the children’s vocabulary at 3 years old was strongly associated with the children’s language ability at 9 or 10, both in terms of reading and spoken language. In other words, Hart and Risley’s results predicted the intellectual achievement of children six years later.

They also looked at what parents talked about. While they analysed the speech in many ways, one was to simply to divide what was said into two categories, ‘business talk’ and ‘conversational talk.’  ’Business talk’ was the essentials, the commands and disciplines involved in looking after young children. ‘Conversational talk’ was all the other chit chat and gossip that parents engaged in with their children. Their findings showed all parents engaged in business talk. All parents had to get their children dressed, out the door, fed, washed and they had to keep them safe. But the more talkative parents engaged in far more conversational talk. They chatted with their kids and gave them running commentaries on what was happening. And it was the conversational talk that was particularly valuable. It was this non-essential talk that gave the children the richness of vocabulary and experience of language.

The implications of this research are fairly obvious. Talking to your child is incredibly important. Children need to experience language to learn it.  And the more you talk, the better.  The parents of the children with the largest vocabularies were talking to their child nearly 500 times per hour. That’s on average eight times per minute or nearly ¾ of the time.  If, like me, you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the idea of trying to use 2000 words per hour,  day in day out, then I hope you find the following fact comforting.  It doesn’t really matter what you talk about. If you talk more, you’ll automatically be talking about more things and use a greater variety of words.  The art is apparently just to chat away.

Finally, if you’re reading this and thinking I haven’t been talking nearly that much then hope is also at hand.  As Hart and Risley’s research demonstrate, you can change the trajectory that your pre-school child is on by changing how you interact with them.

Betty Hart and Todd R Risley Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (1995) and The Social World of Children Learning to Talk (2000)

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