Let's Stop Talking About The '30 Million Word Gap' : NPR Ed It's one of the most famous studies ever done on kids. It's often cited as a reason children from poor families struggle in school. But it may be neither 30 million words, nor exactly a gap.
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Let's Stop Talking About The '30 Million Word Gap'

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Let's Stop Talking About The '30 Million Word Gap'

Let's Stop Talking About The '30 Million Word Gap'

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We're going to talk now about something our next guest says we should all stop talking about - the 30-million-word gap. That is the finding that kids who grow up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words by age 3 than those in wealthier families. For decades, this finding has shaped how teachers and policymakers approach child development. So let's bring in NPR Ed team's Anya Kamenetz to explain why. She says it may be time to move on from the 30-million-word gap. Hey, Anya.


KELLY: Hey. So first just walk us back. Where did this 30 million figure come from in the first place? What was the research?

KAMENETZ: So Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas wanted to know why the poor children in preschool that they were working with seemed to be so far behind at such a young age. So starting in the early 1980s, they went to homes in Kansas City. And for one hour per month, they recorded these families starting when they had babies up until they were 3 years old. And the difference that they found was huge. The professional-class parents in the study spoke more than triple the words per hour to what they called the welfare-class families. And we talked to Betty Hart back in 2011, who told us her initial reaction.


BETTY HART: Horrified when you see that the differences are so great and you think of trying to make up those differences. You just look at it and say, you know, it's hopeless.

KELLY: But researchers and policymakers thought actually this could be quite hopeful. This is a fixable problem. And it drove investment to try to fix this, right, Anya?

KAMENETZ: That's right. People were excited because this seemed actionable. You know, speech is free unlike health care or education. So parent education efforts like federal Early Head Start Programs, Providence Talks, the Clinton Foundation's Too Small to Fail - all of these were inspired by the Hart and Risley 30-million-word study.

KELLY: So this seems like a great idea - trying to figure out ways that parents engage more with their very young children. Why are you making the case that we should stop talking about this 30-million-word gap?

KAMENETZ: Well, critics for years have said that the number itself might be exaggerated. So the sample size in the study was just 42 families, and many have pointed out that having a researcher sit in your living room might not be the most natural situation. And, you know, there was a racial element to this as well because all of the welfare-class families and nine out of 10 of the working-class families in the study were African-American, and they had people in their living rooms who were of another race. They might have been intimidated.

And then just a couple of weeks ago, a study came out that was called a failed replication of Hart and Risley. It compared field recordings in different communities and found that the level of conversation kids heard really varied based on the area, not just on the income level. And so, for example, in the Black Belt area of Alabama, these kids heard three times as many words as in the Hart and Risley study.

KELLY: I gather also there's some controversy just over the term we're using, the 30-million-word gap.

KAMENETZ: When we talk about gaps, it's a deficit model of thinking. It focuses people on, you know, what these kids are doing wrong, what their families are doing wrong rather than how, you know, systems like schools could be meeting their needs better. And so, for example, there was a really interesting study done last year where they talked to educators in mostly Spanish-speaking communities and found that this word gap idea had kind of penetrated people's minds and gotten them to kind of think that these kids didn't have the vocabulary to handle really kind of hands-on, engaging learning. And so this is an example of, you know, maybe science getting into people's heads in a way that might not be completely beneficial.

KELLY: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Mary Louise.

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