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Closing the Word Gap, One Story at a Time

The Word Gap?

What is it and how do we go about closing it?  Perhaps you've heard it referred to as the 30-million word gap.  It's a catchphrase that's been circulating for years.  But what does it really mean?

The phrase itself originated from a landmark study done over 25 years ago that compared the language development and reading achievement of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds.  The researchers observed a large group of 7-month-old babies for one hour per day for two and a half years, until the children reached three years old.  Everything the baby heard or said was recorded.  ALL words were counted, duplicates and all.  The results were shocking.  Youngsters growing up in more well-off homes heard 30-million more words over two and a half years than those living in poorer households.  They also heard these words in a more conversational style compared to children in less well-to-do homes.  There was also a strong link between household income and size of vocabulary.  The take-away was clear: the higher a parent's income, the more words their child was likely to hear and the larger their vocabularies tended to be.

Size of Vocabulary Really Makes a Difference

Given that the size of a child's vocabulary at kindergarten entry is highly predictive of their future reading, and hence school success, it's little wonder this study had the impact it did.  Educators and policy makers dubbed it the 30-million-word gap, and closing it became the goal of intervention programs across the country at every level of government.

However, in recent years, the original study has come under increasing criticism for being too simplistic in its methodology and interpretation, and for not considering cultural differences or parenting styles.  To avoid the controversy, the number - 30-million - has largely been dropped, and the difference in vocabularies of children among higher versus lower economic status simply referred to as the word gap.  By extension, the difference in school outcomes between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children is commonly referred to as the achievement gap.

The Word Gap is Real

Whatever one thinks of the original study, the fact is that some children arrive in kindergarten knowing, and speaking, many more words than others.  The word gap is real.  There is no disagreement that growing up in a rich language environment leads to larger vocabularies and better outcomes.  Little ones learn best when the adults in their lives spend lots of time speaking to them right from birth.  Obviously, babies don't "speak" back, but they most certainly respond - eye contact, facial and body gestures, gurgles, coos, babbling, and eventually words.  When a caregiver engages with these responses and replies in a back-and-forth way, the "conversation" has begun.  Psychologists call this "serve-and-return."  It's this back-and-forth that's so important for development.  It's not enough just to overhear adult conversations.  Words coming from screens don't count either, nor does having a television or radio on in the background.

Stories Help Close the Gap

So how do we begin to close the word gap?  Simple.  Parents and caregivers just need to spend more time talking with their children.  Of course, it's never that simple, but most early childhood education programs do try to educate parents on just how important it is and how best to do it.  Fortunately, one of the very best things a parent can do is also one of the easiest - shared story book reading.  Think about it.  Nothing beats reading a story together for "joint-attention," a key ingredient for language development.  Joint attention is just a fancy way of saying parent and child are jointly focused on the same thing; in this case, the pages of a book, following along with the words, and exploring the pictures.  What could be better for hearing and learning new words?  Research backs this up.  Shared reading is one of the best ways to build a child's vocabulary.  Books are considered "lexical reservoirs" - meaning that the words used in books are often not the same words used in everyday conversations.  For example, consider these words from A Story for Small Bear, by Alice B. McGinty, a Dolly Parton Imagination Library favorite: sprigs of spruce, slumber, forest floor, frigid air, shimmied, lumbered, shivered.  This is just a small sample from one book.  Children are introduced to many unique and varied words through story books.

Furthermore, when you read a story to your child, they hear lots of different words at once.  One well regarded study estimated that children who are read to once a day from birth to the age of five, hear nearly 300,000 more words than children who are never read to.  Taking into account ALL words, and not just different words, the children being read to heard well over 1-million more words.  This number is striking when you consider how strong the correlation is between the number of words children hear and their vocabulary development.  The number is even more striking considering the words included were only words that appeared in the books and did not include any additional words added by the parents - asking questions or relating personal stories, for example.  Not only that, the books included in the study were chosen specifically not to have a lot of words.  It is reasonable to assume that the children were hearing many more words than estimated by this study.

Stories Bring So Much More 

We've only been talking about word exposure. Let's not forget that shared reading provides a child with so much more than simply building a larger vocabulary.  A regular reading habit goes far beyond language development and foundational reading skills.  Reading together strengthens attachment bonds, helps regulate emotions, and a whole host of other benefits.  And perhaps most importantly, story time fosters motivation to read and inspires a love of reading to last a lifetime.

The Imagination Library and BEGIN WITH BOOKS makes it easy to start reading to your child today. Just 15 minutes a day is enough to make a difference. Just click on our website to check out the books our little readers are receiving in the mail each month.

 -- Caron Bell, PhD, Early Childhood Development and volunteer

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