The Relationship Between Poverty and The 30 Million Word Gap

The Relationship Between Poverty and The 30 Million Word Gap

The First 3 Years in a Child’s Life

The first 3 years in a child’s life have lasting impact. Over the past few weeks as I have leaned in on issues impacting the education of brown and black children and those living in poverty, I have learned about the 30 million word gap. This is probably well known among early childhood educators, but I don’t think it’s widely known to those of us who have been away from or have never been closely connected to educational research in the United States. It is astonishing to me that by the time children are three years old, the achievement gap begins to manifest in ways that can be irreparable. It is also remarkable that simple actions like talking, singing and reading to a child everyday can eliminate the gap and prepare the child for school success.

The War on Poverty

In the 1960’s, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the War on Poverty legislation to deal with the growing rate of poverty in the country. Of particular concern was the number of children living in poverty. President Johnson believed the government had a role to play in reducing and even preventing poverty.  The legislation focused on remedies involving access to quality education and healthcare. Great things came out of the War on Poverty, such as Head Start and the Job Corps.

The 30 Million Word Gap

Scholars and researchers conducted studies to understand the effects of poverty on children’s academic achievement and to implement interventions to prevent negative, long-lasting  impact. Researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley were among those researchers. They conducted a landmark study in 1995, The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap By Age 3. They sought to understand language and vocabulary development of preschool children across family income groups (welfare, working class, professional). The researchers observed more than 1,300 hours of casual interactions between parents and their children, beginning when the children were 7-9 months old and continued to age 3. Not surprisingly, the children’s language and vocabulary reflected their parents. In fact, the researchers found that 86% to 98% of each child’s vocabulary reflected their parents’ vocabularies. The researchers said, “When we listened to the children, we seemed to hear their parents speaking…”

The net of the study confirmed that the impoverished children had smaller vocabularies compared to the children whose parents were professionals and the rate of growth of vocabularies was slower for the impoverished children. By the time the children turned 3 years old, they experienced 30 million fewer words than children from professional families. The discrepancy continued over the years, as researchers were able to track a group of the children to ages 9-10. Hart and Risley found, the vocabulary use at age 3 was predictive of language skill at ages 9-10 and this has implications for the long-term academic achievement gap.

Applying a Critical Lens

Looking critically at the study, I have questions about the tests administered to capture vocabulary and language development statistics. What biases are built into those tests? What about researcher bias? I also wonder if the researchers took into account parent availability with their children. It is plausible that parents living in poverty may be less available to their children compared with professionals due to such things as work schedules and psycho-social support. Another consideration worth noting is that in today’s economic climate, professional families could find themselves displaced in their jobs and what, if any, impact this displacement has on their interactions with their children. Simplistically basing research on parent income groups assumes a lot about  the people within those income groups. However, even with my lingering questions, the researchers’ findings cannot be ignored. Their studies and the studies of many others confirm that parental income is a predictor of student academic achievement.

Early vocabulary development during the preschool years is linked to later reading skills and student success. So, if we know that, then what should parents and caregivers do? In an article on The Word Gap published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), Laura Colker suggests nine engaging actions to eliminate the inequality in vocabulary and language development. For example: use gestures and facial expressions to help kids make sense of new words; sing with children and recite poetry and rhymes; read to children daily; help families understand the importance of talking to their children and sharing new vocabulary words; and advocate for equity for all children.  

Reading aloud is the single most important thing you can do to help a child prepare for reading and learning. 

In this last day of March, which is recognized as National Reading Awareness Month, the call to action is to read aloud to a child everyday – your child or children in your care. Just 15 minutes a day can make a difference. As notes on their site, “Research shows that reading aloud is the single most important thing you can do to help a child prepare for reading and learning.” They also report that less than half of children in this country are read to daily. Their tagline is Read Aloud 15 Minutes: Every child. Every parent. Every day.

Dad reading to son

Dads: Get in the Game. A study from Harvard University reveals that children benefit more from their fathers reading them bedtime stories; spark more imaginative discussions; and are more instrumental in their children’s language development because of the way they read to their kids.

One Comment

  1. […] continue throughout the educational career. By the time a child is three years of age, there is a 30-million-word gap between the wealthiest children and the poorest. And, this gap persists through age 13. A child’s […]


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