When Betty Hart and Todd Risely did their groundbreaking study known as the “Thirty Million Word Gap” it made a difference not just in parenting circles but in economics and education circles as well. Intently studying the affect of vocabulary and language in the homes of 42 different families, Hart and Risely found that the words we use in the formative years of language in children directly correlated to issues of poverty for families when limiting the words used and messages conveyed to young children.
The study was rather simple: spend time in the high, middle, and low income homes of the families and gather data in the areas of speech patterns, vocabulary, and communication techniques. What they found was a word gap in the early years of talking to children that seemed to follow the children throughout school that affected their performance both during their academic years and the workforce years that followed.
When I was parenting my daughter as a single mother in the 1980s I hadn’t heard of the 30 Million Word Gap but I was, unintentionally, using best practices from what Hart and Risely learned: I spoke to my child as if she were an adult and used big words with her that probably weren’t developmentally appropriate. At the time, I just had no one else to talk with and I was studying English Literature in college so I ran my summaries of Shakespeare and Wordsworth by her even though she was just shy of 4 years of age. While she didn’t understand me she was being exposed to new words and her vocabulary was growing. Sometimes, she impressed strangers with her grasp of the language but I knew it was simply due to her mother being lonely.
If I were being completely honest I would have to admit that I raised a smart child out of sheer ignorance: I was cheating because I truly needed someone to talk to not because I set out to rear a little Einstein. While I studied in the college library she tagged along and plopped herself in front of the children’s section pretending to read. She occasionally asked me what a sound made and, because I was busy, I quickly told her things like “When you see ‘u’ and ‘e’ together at the end of a word they make the sound ‘ooo’. See how that works? Now go read by yourself.”
When I finally got to graduate school and read the 30 million word gap study I secretly rejoiced that I had done something right as a mom. Go, me! Especially since I don’t know what I’m doing with this parenting thing! The truth is, it taught me how to communicate better with my children as they continued to grow and more kids were added to my family. Those crucial early years are why I support the efforts of Head Start and pre-K programs where children are exposed to reading and vocabulary to help make the difference when they are in their later years of school.
The Word Gap was an important part of parenting for me even if I didn’t know it. In our case, the study turned out to have some truth to it as she’s a college graduate herself who still loves to read. For us, it made all the difference.