32-Million Word Difference

Why do young children from “professional parents” have a bigger vocabulary than young children from “welfare parents”?

We’ll give you a hint. It’s not because of socio-economic status, race, broken homes, birth order, bad neighborhoods, pre-school, or geography. The answer…kids with “professional parents” hear approximately 32-million more spoken words between the age of 0-4 than kids from “welfare-homes”. They also hear more types of words, more conversational words, as opposed to directive words like “get dressed” and “stop that”, and they hear more encouraging words rather than discouraging words.

In the 1960’s two researchers Hart and Risley committed themselves to improving the academic achievement of children, particularly poor children, by helping them build their language skills.

They developed a successful program, but found that when it ended the children reverted back to their original vocabulary acquisition rate. So they decided to investigate the children’s homes. They recorded over 1,300 hours of child/parent interactions and spent the next 6 years analyzing the data. What they found surprised even them.

1. “Professional parents” use approximately 32 million more words with their children between the ages 0-4 than “welfare parents”. Parents at the high end talked to their children 40 minutes of every hour, while parents at the low end talked for less than 15 minutes. This meant that some children heard over 2,000 words per hour while others heard only 616. In one year this difference amounted to nearly 8 million words. By the time a child is 4, children from “professional families” experience 45 million words, while children from “welfare families” hear only 13 million words. This means that some children have 32 million more opportunities to learn language!

2. The more types of words parents use the more types of words their children use. Parents who averaged 2,000 different words per day had children by age 3 who used over 1,000 different words. Parents who averaged fewer than 1,000 words per day had children by age 3 who used just over 500 different words. The range of a parent’s vocabulary increases the range of a child’s vocabulary.

3. 86% – 98% of the words children use between 0-3 are words spoken in their home. So no more blaming the playground on naughty words!

4. All parents participated in “business talk” (i.e. get dressed, don’t do that, brush your teeth) but the most talkative engaged in “conversational talk” (i.e. chit-chat, running commentaries, explanations). “Conversational talk” is particularly valuable because it provides rich and varied vocabulary. Children also tend to tune-out and not be as responsive to “business talk”.

5. Children 0-4 with “professional parents” receive 500,000 encouraging words and 80,000 discouraging words. Children 0-4 with “welfare parents” hear the inverse 80,000 encouraging words and 200,000 discouraging words. Children listen and engage more when responding to positive feedback and interactions.

6. A child’s language ability at 3 strongly predicts their ability at 9, both in terms of reading and spoken language. They also found a correlation between academic success and high language acquisition rates.

Other studies have corroborated and supported Hart and Risley’s findings. For example, many studies have found that although children don’t typically start speaking until 12-months old, their brains process aspects of language as early as 3-months old. By the time they actually start speaking, babies already know hundreds of words and have laid a foundation for language such as categorizing objects, segmenting (picking out words from a stream of conversation), rhythm, inflection and accents. Some studies have predicted a child’s vocabulary and grammar abilities at ages 4-6 by testing their segmenting skills at 12-months old.

The terms “Professional Parent” and “Welfare Parent”
At Parent Think, we prefer to use the terms “conversational parent” versus “non-conversational parent” instead of the terms “professional” and “welfare”. This is because generalizations rarely hold up across the board, so not all “welfare parents” are non-conversational. It can also lull “professional parents” into a false sense of security when in fact they may not be conversing enough with their children. Parent Think did not change the researchers terms because we were presenting their findings but it may be helpful to re-read the article using our terminology.

What about TV?
Although TV can occupy a small child like nothing else, study after study shows that for children under 2 of for those who have fewer than 50 word vocabularies, TV, even educational programs, come with a price. For every hour a TV is on conversational exchanges between a baby and parent drop by 15%. The amount a baby vocalizes also decreases. Even programs that encourage parents to interact with their children have been shown to decrease interactions. Considering that 30% of American households now report constantly having the TV on, even when no one is watching, this is concerning.

Separate, unrelated, studies have also shown that narrating (talking about what is happening) help regulate a child’s emotions. (See our upcoming article entitled Alien Tour Guide – Narration part 1). What these studies prove, is that talking to and engaging our children in conversation, rather than just talking at them, makes a big difference in their ability to learn language, which has a cascade or positive affects from behavior to later academic success.

– Children between 2-6 have the ability to learn 6-10 new words a day.
– By age 2 all parents start speaking to their children more, but by age 2 difference in language ability are already in motion.
– Childhood language development is a predictor of school success.
– Children in first-grade who have been read to regularly have a working vocabulary of 40,000 words, while those who are rarely read to have a vocabulary of 10,000 words.
– Bilingual children learn language differently than monolingual children, but language milestones happen at similar times.
– Young adopted children who change languages, progress through the same language acquisition stages as an infant, but at a greater speed.
– At 3-months of age words have a bigger impact on learning than other sounds, including music.
– Children overhearing appropriate adult conversations were also included in the study as part of the amount of words a child hears, but nothing beats direct interaction with a child.

Remember, children learn language best through meaningful interactions. Talking about everyday life, playing, reading, and other meaningful connections are all you need – not fancy educational toys or computer games, although those can be fun too. Also remember it is about having a conversation with your child. They need to be and feel engaged in what is being spoken about, even if they are preverbal. Sometimes children may also want quiet time, which is normal and natural. Pre-verbal children often avert their eye gaze or adjust their body position away to indicate they’ve had enough.

Leave a Reply