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Speak Loving Words to Your Children

The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age Three
Taken from Hart, B., & Risley, T. R., American Educator (Spring, 2003)

Very often, poverty plays a role in children not doing well in school. Over the years, many researchers, psychologists and educators have tried to change this development with the use of projects to increase and improve the everyday language that children use. One of these projects included both poor children and a group of professors’ children. The children in the project used many new materials and activities that were focused on language. At the end of the project, the children had learned many new words and they learned these words at a faster rate than they did before. However, the poor children soon forgot many of the new words by the time they were in kindergarten.

The researchers were puzzled and conducted another project to understand why the poor children forgot the new words they had learned. This second project looked at what was happening to children in their homes during the very early years when they were learning language. The results showed that families are very different in the amount and types of interactions and experiences with language they provide their children. This is very important because almost everything that infants learn comes from their families. Also, these early experiences with language are linked to later language use.

Results from the project showed that children from families on welfare knew fewer words than did those children in professional families. Children from families on welfare also learned new words more slowly than did children from professional families. The results also showed that children from professional families heard many more encouraging than discouraging words, but children from welfare families heard far more discouraging words than encouraging words. A summary of the results follows:

Number of Words Heard per Hour
Welfare children
Working-class children
Professional children
616
1251
2153
Number of Words Heard by 4 Years Old
Welfare children
Working-class children
Professional children
13 million
26 million
45 million
Number of Encouraging Words Heard per Hour
Welfare children
Working-class children
Professional children
5
12
32
Number of Discouraging Words Heard per Hour
Welfare children
Working-class children
Professional children
11
7
5
1 1 Summary developed 2004 by Sheralyn Dash, B. Sc., M.A. Graduate Intern, District of Columbia Office of Early Childhood Development, DHS Howard University Ph.D. Candidate
 

Very often, poverty plays a role in children not doing well in school. Over the years, many researchers, psychologists and educators have tried to change this development with the use of projects to increase and improve the everyday language that children use.

By the time children are in preschool, the average child in a professional family has received 566,000 more encouraging than discouraging words. The average child in a working-class family would have received 100,000 more encouraging words than discouraging words. However, the average child in a welfare family would have received 125,000 more discouraging words than encouraging words. These results make it clear that many children are at risk for school failure. Parents, teachers and child care providers all need to think about the types of interactions they have with young children. Urgent action is needed!

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