Nov 3, 2015 by Kristina Birdsong

Key Points:

  • A vocabulary gap between children from professional families and children from families on welfare is a major contributor to the achievement gap
  • In a child's early years, the quality of conversational opportunities is just as important as the quantity of words spoken
  • Teachers can foster better conversations in the classroom to help close the achievement gap and encourage academic success for all students

Revisiting the 30 million word gap

In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published landmark research about the ways in which young learners were exposed to vocabulary words before they reached school age. They tracked infants just learning to speak and studied their interactions with their families, measuring the total number of words the babies were exposed to. They also studied the types of interactions parents offered their children through their budding conversations.

Hart and Risley discovered that the children of upper middle-class, college educated parents hear, on average, about 2,150 words per hour. Children in working-class families heard 1,250 words per hour, and children in families receiving public assistance heard only about 600 words per hour. They estimated that, over time, the poorest children would enter school with a 30 million word deficit compared to their better-prepared peers.

As politicians and reformers worked to improve education leading up to the passage of No Child Left Behind, Hart and Risley's research highlighted a measurable aspect of the achievement gap that seemed relatively easy to fix, and many educators strove to expose young children to more varied vocabulary words to help disadvantaged students catch up.

Conversational quality vs. quantity

Hart and Risley's initial research has led to two decades' worth of follow-up research that has largely corroborated their findings. Though the 30 million word figure is now considered to be somewhat overstated, new research by the LENA Research Foundation suggests that a serious gap does exist: children growing up in poverty hear only half as many words as their wealthier counterparts by age three, amounting to an 11 million word gap.

The latest research suggests that, though the amount of vocabulary introduced is important, the quality of parent-child conversations is just as crucial. In continuing studies, researchers found that children in upper-class families were given many more opportunities to participate in open-ended conversation and had a greater number of interactions. Disadvantaged children, by contrast, had interactions that were more often one-sided; for example, those in which the parent gave a command and did not elicit any give-and-take in the conversation. Researchers theorize that the quality of the conversational opportunities is just as important as the number of words spoken in a child's early years.

Classroom strategies to boost conversation

How can teachers help close the achievement gap? A careful focus on exposing all students to high-quality conversational give-and-take and varied vocabulary can make a big difference. Teachers of early learners in kindergarten through third grade should consider incorporating the following 5 activities into their daily routines:

  1. Model appropriate conversation, including asking questions and taking turns. Children without much experience in give-and-take discussions at home will need support in engaging in deep conversation.
  2. Use varied vocabulary when presenting new information. Support students by using visuals and other context clues to make meanings clear.
  3. Check in with students individually. Ask open-ended questions about their opinions and feelings to give them a chance to engage.
  4. Create an interactive word wall where students can add vocabulary words and definitions to a colorful display. Encourage students to add words they love, whether based on the meaning or sound, to foster a love of language.
  5. Choose read-aloud books that include characters having conversations with each other. In discussing the books, guide students in analyzing how the characters are speaking to each other. Are they being respectful conversational partners, or is there a misunderstanding?

When you turn your attention to improving the quality of conversations in your classroom, you can help engage struggling students and close the achievement gap at the same time.



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Is there a reason behind the

Is there a reason behind the fact that disadvantaged families engage in less conversation with their children than do professionaly families?

Hi Linda, thanks for your

Hi Linda, thanks for your question. There are several reasons this may be the case, and of course, it's important not to overgeneralize to individual families. In many cases, it's that the parents are working multiple jobs and simply not home with their children for as many hours of the day. In others, it may be related to education and language levels of the parents - the higher the education, the better the language skills and the more likely the parent is to engage in language-affirming exchanges, vs. punitive or directive statements. This is borne out by the research. As educators, it is our job to provide as many positive, language-rich interactions as possible during the school day.

Yes, less tell available due

Yes, less tell available due to work and liVing arangements. Model of their parents score them.justa m of understanding of its importance.

Reaffirms the importance of

Reaffirms the importance of context-specific, cognitively complex conversations, a critical foundation for academic or discipline-specific literacy.