The Long, Contentious History of the “Word Gap” Study

Back in the 1990s, a team of researchers spent two and a half years visiting the homes of close to four dozen families with young children, starting when the kids were 7 months old. Equipped with tape recorders and notebooks, the researchers—led by two Kansas psychologists named Betty Hart and Todd Risley—spent an hour per week in each home, recording every word a child’s primary caregiver said to the child during the sessions. After transcribing each conversation and then analyzing the exchanges as a whole, the researchers (who have both since passed away) discovered major differences in the number of words spoken in middle-class families and in lower-income ones.

The result of their research was a landmark study published in 1995, which maintained that a typical child whose parents are highly educated and working professionals is exposed to roughly 1,540 more spoken words per hour than a typical child on welfare. Over time, they concluded, this word gap snowballs so much that by age 4, children in rich families have been exposed to 32 million more words than children in poorer ones.

The study was a sensation, with the media and policymakers fixating on the so-called “word gap” as a key source of longer-term academic disparities between poor and rich kids. It was immediately embraced by academic researchers, and was cited in more than 7,000 academic publications. It influenced welfare initiatives, government pilot programs, and grant campaigns. The Obama administration championed efforts to close the “word gap,” organizing a campaign to raise awareness of the issue and to encourage parents to talk more to their children.

Now, a new study has failed to replicate Hart and Risley’s findings, further complicating the legacy of this body of research and renewing a long-standing debate among researchers about just how large disparities of language and vocabulary are among different social classes—and how much those differences matter, if at all.

More here.

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