The 30 Million Word Gap

There is a zombie idea that is hanging around in public discourse no matter how hard social scientists try to kill it: the concept of the ‘30 Million Word Gap’, which has been cited over 8000 times. This is the idea that ‘by 3 years of age, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are upwards of 4-30 million words behind children from high socioeconomic families (Gongora 2019).’ This idea pushes the social investment policymakers to spend more time focusing on early childhood education, which is of course a wonderful thing! Low-income families do have difficulty in relation to education, and the issue should be focused on. The only problem is that the premise of the ‘gap’ is wrong. The 30 million word gap sounds scary, but it doesn’t even exist. And worse than that, it creates a deficit-based and blame-oriented approach towards lower income families.

Firstly, let’s talk about the study that created the idea of the gap; it was started almost 40 years ago by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, and only had 42 families involved. These families were divided into three groups; ‘welfare’, ‘working class’, and ‘professional.’ All of the welfare families and most of the working class families were black, while the majority of the professional families were white. Already there is a racial bias that did not reflect the background of the area they were working in at the time.

Even with exact replications of the study, social scientists have gotten a different number than the original study, which is problematic in itself. Researchers in 2017 found that the gap (with the same standards of measurement as Hart and Risley), was only about 4 million. However, the word gap study has even more issues with it! The researchers gave each family an obtrusive tape recorder, which meant that participants likely changed their speech to appear better, whatever that meant to them. This is a common problem with social science scholars, that the presence of extra eyes (or ears in this case) affects the subject of research. In recent studies, recorders have been much smaller, less obtrusive, and placed in the home so that the parent didn’t need to initiate recording. The Hart-Risley study only took into account the caretaker speaking directly to the child. Bystander speech was not recorded, and non-face-to-face interactions like the watching of tv or listening to the radio were not recorded. This has a bias against low-income working families where the tv often becomes a babysitter while parents are trying to earn more money to provide for their family. Also, the number of words does not take into account vocabulary, so a repeated word like ‘the, the, the’ counts as three words. They also do not really take into account the tone of voice used.

The study itself was problematic, but the policies that came from it were too. Although it is good to try to help lower-income families, the way this was approached would often make parents feel shame that they weren’t able to care for their kids in a better way, or to be more intellectual with them. It blames parents for the gap, and not socio-economic structural issues that are also at play.

The Hart-Risley study is a simplistic view of an educational difference that stems from a history of racism and classism. There are more aspects at play than a difference in words. Michael Erard, a linguist, has stated that ‘just as solving climate change isn’t about closing the polar bear gap, and preventing environmental degradation isn’t about closing the tree gap, you can’t increase children’s school readiness by closing the word gap’ (Erard).

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Affiliate Disclaimer

Elizabeth Hampson is not associated with any organization mentioned in this article. She would not receive funding from any company that would benefit from this article. All opinions herein are her own.

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Sources and Further Reading

Erard, Michael. “The New Work of Words.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 Nov. 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/11/the-new-work-of-words/382277/.

Gongora, Kareem. “Letter to the Editor: Early Childhood Programs Praised.” Fontana Herald News, 24 Jan. 2019.

Hart, B. & Risley, T.R., 1995. Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children, Baltimore: P.H. Brookes.

Kamenetz, Anya. “Let’s Stop Talking About The ’30 Million Word Gap’.” NPR, NPR, 1 June 2018, www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/06/01/615188051/lets-stop-talking-about-the-30-million-word-gap.

McKenna, Laura. “The Long, Contentious History of the ‘Word Gap’ Study.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 15 June 2018, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/06/the-long-contentious-history-of-the-word-gap-study/562850/.

Sperry, Douglas E., et al. “Reexamining the Verbal Environments of Children From Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds.” Child Development, 2018.

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Feature Image from: http://afropolitain-magazine.com/the-weight-of-words/

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