Beyond the Word Gap

Are efforts to boost kids’ vocabularies before kindergarten missing the mark?

A home visitor reads a book with a mother and her 18-month-old son as part of an effort in Providence, Rhode Island, to close the word gap. (Steven Senne / AP)

My co-teacher is stirring sugar into a pitcher of hot water. Our students, ages 4 and 5, stand around the table, watching the sugar intently. “It’s dissolving!” one student cries out. “What does that mean—dissolving?” my co-teacher probes. Another child raises his hand. “It means, like, disappearing, or disintegrating.”

My students are the children of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals, and have been hearing words like “dissolve” and “disintegrate” since they were babies. The extensive vocabularies of children like them have been causing quite a stir among researchers and policymakers for two decades now, since the publication of a study finding that children of professionals might hear 45 million words uttered before the age of 4, and that children on welfare might hear just 13 million. This early difference in exposure to vocabulary, the study claims, can shape how well kids do in school later on.

Betty Hart and Todd Risley, then child psychologists at the University of Kansas, published those findings in 1995. They later called this disparity the “word gap,” and their work on it has been cited in more than 5,000 academic publications, inspired dozens of news articles, and garnered eager, vocal advocates, chief among them Hillary Clinton. These advocates see campaigns to encourage parents to talk more with their young children as a first step toward closing the achievement gap. But some experts are pushing back, saying that efforts to close the word gap, while well-intentioned, might represent just another attempt at a quick fix to solve complex social and economic problems.

In the late ‘90s, Clinton convened a White House conference on early-childhood development, working in her capacity as the First Lady. Then, in 2013, she announced the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative, which in part intends to expose parents to scientific research on child development, and engage businesses as partners in doing so. With nearly each effort, Clinton has highlighted Hart and Risley’s study. Too Small to Fail has launched a campaign through social media and community partnerships, “Talking is Teaching: #TalkReadSing,” to encourage parents to engage in those activities with their children. (Clinton resigned from her board position in April in order to focus on her presidential run.)

The talking campaign has attracted support from all kinds of influential entities and players—the American Academy of Pediatrics and Univision are just two of its partners. Celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Kelly Rowland have joined the effort, mooing and clapping their way through PSAs about talking, reading, and singing. Elmo nabbed an exclusive interview with Chelsea Clinton for People magazine, in which the former first daughter revealed how often she and her husband read to their young daughter, Charlotte. When Dana Suskind, a University of Chicago neurosurgeon, published her book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, last fall, Arne Duncan, then the Secretary of Education, headlined an event on her book tour.* President Obama partnered with Too Small to Fail in 2014 for “Bridging the Word Gap week,” a White House initiative that announced federal grants to fund “low-cost, scalable technological interventions” to support caregivers’ interactions with their children. These advocates see talking, reading, and singing as ways parents can make a big impact in their children’s lives, particularly when those children grow up in poverty. In the United States, 47 percent of children under 5 live in low-income families.

In a video for Too Small to Fail, Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator John McCain, spoke of the “word gap” as one might refer to an illness, noting, “This troubling difference among vocabularies in young children presents itself early in life.” She urged parents, “It’s not hard, and it doesn’t take any money. All it takes is a little love and a little time throughout the day to build talking, reading, and singing into the parent’s daily schedule.” But experts wonder: Is the word gap really as wide as advocates claim? And if so, is closing it really that easy?

Some scholars have suggested the “word gap” study was overly simplistic, and that its implications have been exaggerated. A group of linguistic anthropologists concerned with social justice has raised concerns about the study’s racial undertones and its methodology. They point out that the sample size was small—just 42 families in the Kansas City area—and that nearly all of the professional families were white, while all of the six families receiving welfare were black. There are challenging, historically rooted power dynamics at play when researchers enter homes of low-income people of color, two members of this group, Eric Johnson and Netta Avineri, stressed in an interview. These linguistic anthropologists and other scholars have suggested that the highly educated, white families may have become more talkative than normal with their children in response to the presence of university researchers, where the less-educated, black families in Hart and Risley’s study may have become withdrawn, fearing judgment. “Think about how odd that is—a family is welcoming someone into their home who is not part of their community, and whose only purpose there is to study them,” Johnson said.

That aside, these scholars argue the emphasis on how many words kids hear is problematic in itself. Hart and Risley chose to study the total number of words uttered to a child. But such counts say little about about the range of vocabulary caregivers used, let alone the quality of an interaction. Were a caregiver to repeat the word “dog” hundreds of times a day, that would, strictly speaking, satisfy the requirements to “close the word gap.” In reality, a complex web of factors affects child development. As Michael Erard, a linguist, wrote for The Atlantic in 2014, “Just as solving climate change isn’t about closing the polar bear gap, and preventing environmental degradation isn’t about closing the tree gap, you can’t increase children’s school readiness by closing the word gap.”

Meanwhile, some experts who study the well-being of low-income children of color wonder whether the word-gap data, valid or not, is being overemphasized. Hakim Rashid, a human-development professor at Howard University, said, “I think the word gap is real but I don’t think it is the major determinant of what happens to young children, and young black boys in particular,” noting that low-income children of color are least likely to have access to the most well-resourced early-childhood programs. Oscar Barbarin, a child psychologist who chairs the African American Studies department at the University of Maryland, concurred, adding that interest in the word gap speaks to a widespread interest in miracle solutions. “If the problem facing low-income children of color is simply a question of parents saying more words and longer words, it would be much easier to fix than poverty and access to education for adults,” he said. “It’d be much easier to fix than the sense of alienation that poor and ethnic minority groups feel from mainstream society.” Elizabeth Rose, a historian and author of The Promise of Preschool, said the search for such solutions is unsurprising: “In any historical period you’re more likely to see reformers who are not about creating revolution but reforming a system.” “Efforts to improve the poor by improving their families,” she noted, “have quite a long history.”

Many of the parents of children I’ve taught have been quite open about how challenging it is to be fully available to their kids, and this has been especially the case for those who are poor. Research shows that low-income parents often have less time with their children than their more-affluent counterparts, and may be under stress that imbues interactions with them. “In a way it’s all good, getting books to kids is good, talk campaigns are good, and getting parents to use text as a springboard for rich conversations is great,” said Harvard’s Richard Weissbourd, who has helped establish programs for low-income parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Still, there are these very serious obstacles low-income families face.” According to the Urban Institute, lower-earning workers are more likely than others to work overnight and on weekends, and have irregular schedules without paid time off. Their hours require them to find childcare for hours that many centers are closed and commute when public transportation may not be available. These are the parents that Hart and Risley were most likely to classify as “taciturn.”

Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician who has worked with low-income families for more than two decades, has participated in Reach Out and Read, a partner of Too Small To Fail. “I’m sure I’ve helped,” she wrote in a piece for The Huffington Post, emphasizing that she admires Too Small to Fail’s work and appreciates the chance to educate parents about reading with their children. “But the lives of my patients haven’t gotten appreciably better.” She reflected on the things that “a book and a pep talk can’t do”: improve adult literacy, relieve parents’ workloads, or eliminate the toxic stress that can pervade every family interaction, for example. According to the nonprofit Child Trends, the U.S. spends a smaller percentage of its GDP on benefits for families than nearly any other high-income country, despite having one of the highest relative child poverty rates.

Patti Miller, one of the directors of Too Small to Fail, acknowledged in an interview that “Economic pressures translate into less time talking, reading, singing.” But, she said, “we have to start somewhere, and we absolutely understand there is a complex environment. We hope the part we are playing to further educate parents on the powerful role they can play will make a difference.” Too Small to Fail is largely silent on the potential of anti-poverty measures to help low-income children.

Barbarin, the professor at the University of Maryland, sees the value of talking campaigns—yet he has ideas about other, bolder steps. “If we can only do one thing to help children, it must be to give parents a stable job with a liveable wage. That would be the number one thing,” he said. When asked if it feels heretical to say that as a child psychologist, Barbarin laughed, and then grew serious. He replied, “it does feel heretical, except it comes from someone who grew up very poor and knows the value of those things.”

* This article originally misidentified the institution at which Dana Suskind teaches; she's a professor at the University of Chicago. We regret the error.