The Word Gap – An Example of Early Language Disparities

A case for the importance of early language development can be seen in a phenomenon know as the word gap.

Essentially, the word gap (sometimes referred to as the 30 million word gap) is a disparity in the vocabularies between children of differing socioeconomic strata. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a disparity in vocabulary exposures between those children, a disparity which later manifests as differences in vocabulary size, school preparedness, scholastic achievement and more.

What does that mean, and why is it an issue?

First things first, why is it called the 30 million word gap? 30 million is the estimated number of fewer words that a child from a low-income family will hear in comparison to a child from a high-income family before the two children even attend their first days of school (perhaps even by the age of 3). That number is just an estimate; and while knowing the exact number of words to which a child is exposed may not be of great importance, the effect of that exposure (or lack thereof) is significant.

Children who are exposed to a greater wealth of words arrive at school better prepared than their peers. Those children who have had fewer language encounters may not only be at a comparative disadvantage in regards to language and learning skills, they might even be below expected national benchmarks – as was the case in Providence, Rhode Island.

Not only might this put educators and schools under increased strain, as they attempt to bring students up to expected norms, it also starts the children off in learning deficits – perhaps increasing the barriers to future academic success. These initial differences between students at the onset of schooling might then persist into a broader achievement gap pattern, as the gulf between the accomplishments of students from varying vocabulary exposures never narrows.

Course of Action

As with any problem, awareness if often the first step, and a number of researchers, individuals, and orginizations have begun voicing the importance of child-directed speech. Once awareness has been established, more directed education can take place, but even that isn’t without difficulties. For starters, it’s often difficult to gauge how much child-directed speech takes places in a given day, week, or month. After all, parents and caregivers don’t keep running tallies of their spoken words. Because of that, there’s no easy way for a parent to know whether he or she should be increasing the amount of time spent interacting with his or her child. However, even if a parent did have an accurate assessment of how many words he or she directs towards the child, how would he or she know if that number were to too low, average, or above average? We may never have a perfect range of vocabulary exposure. The initial findings of Hart and Risly, however, do give us insight into a general trend: higher rates of utterances and a higher diversity of vocabulary are beneficial for developing the vocabularies of children.

Moving Forward

The narrative surrounding this problem may often seem bleak, often portraying an entire lifetime of successes as unseen opportunities hinging upon the fleeting moments of early childhood, which, once passed, are lost forever. Moreover, the economic component of this issue has a tendency to ignite debates and opinions about social justice at a time when inter-class tension has already been strained.

I, however, view this problem (significant as it may be) with a fair share of optimism. If nothing else, it suggests to me a reason to be hopeful. While wealthier parents will always be able to afford more opportunities for their youmg children, the greatest opportunity of all may not be one that’s bought, but one that’s created. Involved parenting might just be the great equalizer. This is obviously a simplified answer to a complicated problem (availability of time and the base vocabulary of parents being just two issues), and a more thorough solution, much like the problems itself, is very likely to be quite nuanced. It is, however, a good place to start.