Word Up Since 1992, the study known as "The 30 Million Word Gap" has, with unusual power, shaped the way educators, parents and policymakers think about educating poor children. NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz joins us to talk about what it gets right, and what it misses.
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Word Up

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Word Up

Word Up

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: We know that right now, during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family. And if a...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: It's been nearly two decades since we learned about the word gap.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right. The word gap.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: By the end of the age of 3, children who are born into poverty will have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: For decades, this finding has shaped how teachers and policymakers approach child development.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Let's find new ways to deliver a world-class education to our children, bridge the word gap and put more young people on a path to success.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's on vacation. On this episode, we're talking all about the so-called 30 million word gap - the study done in the early '90s that found that kids growing up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words at home by the time they're 3 than kids whose parents are, quote, unquote, "professional class."

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: It was huge. I mean, it was the kind of thing that NPR does like dozens of stories on. And, you know, it was on television. It was cited more than 8,000 times.

MERAJI: That's Anya Kamenetz. She's an NPR education correspondent. And before he left, Gene talked to her all about the super popular study.

KAMENETZ: This really caught people's imagination, not only because the number obviously is so big and impressive, but because this looks like something that can move the needle on.

MERAJI: If it sounds too good to be true, keep listening. Anya kicks things off by giving us some more background on the 30 million word gap.

KAMENETZ: So this incredibly catchy number was arrived at by a team of researchers named Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Betty Hart was a former preschool teacher, and Todd Risley was her adviser in the University of Kansas. And they were starting out by looking at preschool students and early childhood education. And they were so struck by the differences in kids coming to preschool with really different class backgrounds. And they looked at birth announcements in the newspaper - this was in Kansas City - to figure out, you know, kind of by the name and the address of the family they could figure out a little bit about their socioeconomic status. And they recruited these families. And they ended up with families at four different levels of income and education. And they called the lowest level the welfare level up to professional class.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: OK. What were they like demographically?

KAMENETZ: So interestingly, all of the welfare families were black. 7 out of 10 of the working class families were black. And 9 out of 10 of the professional families were white. Just putting it into the terms that Hart and Risley did, right? They put a lot of time into this. It was one hour a month for two and a half years, physically visiting the houses of the families with a tape recorder and a stopwatch and a clipboard, taping the families as they supposedly went about their business. Right?

DEMBY: OK.

KAMENETZ: And this is where they get to this point of saying that the families that were - you know, had more wealth, more education, were speaking three times as many words to their children per hour. And that is how they added it up to being 30 million more words in the professional-class children versus the so-called welfare-class children.

DEMBY: So already they were seeing these sort of divides in aptitude?

KAMENETZ: Well, aptitude's a very loaded way of talking about it...

DEMBY: Sure.

KAMENETZ: ...But divides in how ready are they to learn in school? How accustomed are they to letters and numbers and answering questions and all the things that come with learning, right?

DEMBY: Mmm hmm. So in their sample pool, they have a bunch of black families who are all poor. And all the upper-class families are white. So did they ever explicate in their findings that they were talking to white families and black families who were basically occupying completely different social strata?

KAMENETZ: I feel like this is something that's been pulled out by a lot of critics of this research that it was not something that they necessarily understood to be a factor. And so, you know, this study was done by child psychologists. And there's practices - different practices in different places - where you look at the cultural difference. And these people were like, that's not what we're looking at, so we're just going to exclude that from the framework here.

DEMBY: So how did their research land in the world?

KAMENETZ: It was huge. I mean, it was the kind of thing that NPR does like dozens of stories on. And, you know, it was on television. It was cited more than 8,000 times according to Google Scholar.

DEMBY: Wow.

KAMENETZ: The book became one of the biggest best-sellers in the history of that academic publisher. There is a national network today of scholars that are all inspired by Hart and Risley, lots of nonprofit initiatives. The Clinton Foundation got into the game with Too Small To Fail. This really caught people's imagination, not only because the number obviously is so big and impressive, but because this looks like something that you can move the needle on, right? Like, it's expensive to build preschools for every kid or to give health care to every kid or to buy books for people. But if you're just trying to say, oh, we're just trying to change how parents talk to their babies, potentially - in theory - that's free, right?

DEMBY: Right.

KAMENETZ: It's something where you can change behavior and then, oh, my God, it could have all these amazing effects. But here's the problem, Gene - it may not have exactly been 30 million words, and it may not be really correct to call it a gap either.

DEMBY: OK. So let's back up for a second. Let's back up for second.

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

DEMBY: What - it's not 30 million words. Is there some sort of disparity between these families based on class at all? Like, how many words is there?

KAMENETZ: So it obviously depends on who you ask. And there's been a lot of different kind of whacks at the pinata of people trying to, like, replicate this study and do it in different ways. But the one that I was most struck by was - there's this organization called LENA. And they have created - using modern technology - this really tiny recording device that even a little tiny baby can wear on their clothes. And so you're removing then the factor of, well, it was just one hour per day in the original study, right? And it was physically somebody sitting in the living room. And if you think about the dynamics of that - right? - you have this researcher sitting in your house. You know, a lot of people have kind of pointed out that, depending on class and other kinds of differences, like, maybe you're nervous around that person...

DEMBY: Absolutely.

KAMENETZ: ...maybe you're inhibited around that person, right?

DEMBY: Right. There's a white lady sitting in the corner of your house who you don't know. Like, maybe you are a little bit more, like, on edge.

KAMENETZ: Or maybe the way that you think that the way that you talk is not the way you're supposed to be talking, right?

DEMBY: Sure.

KAMENETZ: Versus, like, an educated professional parent who - if you see these parents around New York City - which I do - like, they'll talk the most. Like, they hear, oh, someone is coming to evaluate me? Oh, let's get our speech on, you know? So that was something that was pointed out as being potentially skewing the original study a little bit. And in this - the study that was done with LENA with these tiny recorders, the kids are wearing them all of their waking hours. And they found that the difference in the words that the children heard was more like 4 million in four years instead of 30 million in three years.

MERAJI: After the break, NPR's education correspondent Anya Kamenetz interviews a woman who used one of those little LENA monitors to track how much she talks to her baby girl.

LASHONDA MITCHELL: You know, like, oh, God. That's intrusive. They're going to be recording me, you know. You know, I didn't know what to expect.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen. Gene's on vacation. CODE SWITCH. We're back with Anya Kamenetz, NPR's education correspondent who spoke to one of the participants in a program called LENA Start, which was designed to help close the word gap.

MITCHELL: I am Lashonda Mitchell (ph), and I live in Huntsville, Ala.

KAMENETZ: What is your child's name?

MITCHELL: Morgan (ph).

KAMENETZ: Morgan. How old is Morgan?

MITCHELL: She's 3 and a half.

KAMENETZ: Wonderful. And do you mind if I ask what you do?

MITCHELL: I actually work in a pre-K program.

KAMENETZ: And you must have a real love for little kids then?

MITCHELL: Oh gosh, more than you know, I guess.

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL: I'm actually the assistant teacher in the classroom.

KAMENETZ: Wonderful. And so how did you hear about the LENA Start program?

MITCHELL: I was actually pregnant with Morgan. And I remember coming across a news article that stated that the local school system was going to partner with a LENA program. And one of the requirements said that the infant will be required to wear a vest with a recording device. I stopped, and I read no more.

KAMENETZ: Why is that?

MITCHELL: Well, you know, with - oh, God, that's intrusive. They're going to be recording me? You know, I didn't know what to expect, so I stopped reading. And I thought no more about the program. So fast forward - my baby was under a year old. And I had a friend call me one day and said, hey, I heard about this program you might be interested in. And I'm like, OK. So I go down. And I remember going through the paperwork and signing everything. And then I saw the word LENA, and I stopped. And I said, LENA? This is the program I didn't even want to be a part of. I said, OK. I'll just go with the flow. I'm going to give it a try. I'll see what they're talking about.

KAMENETZ: OK. And so when was this?

MITCHELL: We're talking about three years ago, three and a half years ago.

KAMENETZ: What was the effect of the program - of the recording part of it?

MITCHELL: Well, what I liked about it - the very first time we got the report back - because in the beginning, you know, you really didn't know what to expect. And what I liked to see was, oh man, the TV was on for 20 hours - you know, I'm just kind of exaggerating but - oh man, the TV was on 20 hours. I didn't talk anything? I didn't say anything to my baby? And so the next week would be a challenge for me to talk even more. Or, oh, well, I know I'm going to record today, so I need to have less TV on and more talking. But I like that the report could actually give me some real-time data as to how much she's being spoken to. That's what I liked about the program.

KAMENETZ: Between the classes and the data you were getting...

MITCHELL: Yes.

KAMENETZ: ...You made some changes.

MITCHELL: Yes. You know, I think people think, oh, it's just a baby. You know, they're so small. They don't understand what you're saying anyway. But they actually do. We received books. I started reading more to her. Even to this day, we still read. You know, she has a library card - she had a library card, you know, ever since - before she was a year old. So the effect of just speaking to her and talking and reading with her.

KAMENETZ: Wow. And so did you see changes in her right away? Can you remember?

MITCHELL: Well, she was so young right away, but I could tell that she would light up when we would get books because she knew it was our time to - you know, to be together and I could talk to her.

KAMENETZ: And so did you recommend this to other families?

MITCHELL: I did. I did. I have a godsister who's gone through the program. And I have a cousin I know for sure who's gone through the program.

KAMENETZ: One of the elements that I find kind of interesting in this is the whole idea of, like, taking parenting classes. What was that like for you, that idea of, like, I'm going to go and talk to some experts, and they're going to tell me what to do in my house with my kid?

MITCHELL: That was totally fine with me because it wasn't necessarily - oh, I've got to take a parenting class so that they can tell me what to do and how to do it. But I looked at it, for me, as a supplement as to what I'm doing or what I can do better.

KAMENETZ: Do you think that there's any differences in the way that people talk to their kids by race or by the community that you live in?

MITCHELL: Maybe. I can see, if you are a little bit more educated, you may speak to your children a little differently - almost kind of, like - well, when you know better, you do better.

KAMENETZ: You sound like you're saying that, if you're more educated, that you can do better at talking to your kids.

MITCHELL: Yes. I do. I do.

KAMENETZ: You know, some researchers and some experts, you know, really like this research and think it's really useful. And other people kind of come out and say different types of families might talk differently to their children, and it doesn't mean it's better or worse. In fact, there might be something valuable about all the ways that people talk to their kids. Do you have any thoughts about that?

MITCHELL: Well, I think, in general, different cultures speak to their children in different ways. But, I mean, the idea here is talk. Talk to your children. That's what I think LENA is saying.

MERAJI: So for Lashonda Mitchell from Huntsville, Ala., participating in LENA Start wasn't about changing who she is - her culture. For her, it was a good reminder to talk to her daughter more. Talk more to your baby, help close the so-called word gap, which brings us back to Gene's conversation with Anya.

DEMBY: A few years ago, I was reporting on a story about the achievement gap - you know, the idea that black kids don't perform as well as white kids on standardized tests, right?

KAMENETZ: Right.

DEMBY: And a researcher corrected me. She basically was like, the whole notion of a gap - that whole language - presumes that white achievement was the standard by which other people should be measured. That it framed the conversation as one of deficit for black children...

KAMENETZ: Yes.

DEMBY: ...Instead of evidence of relative disadvantage and advantage. In your reporting, how are people talking about that framing of a word gap?

KAMENETZ: People are making exactly the same criticism of the word gap that they make of the achievement gap...

DEMBY: OK.

KAMENETZ: ...In that it's an example of deficit thinking and that deficit thinking has real consequences. So there's two different kind of lines of criticism here.

DEMBY: OK.

KAMENETZ: One is that, instead of calling it a word gap, we should maybe be thinking about word wealth.

DEMBY: Word wealth.

KAMENETZ: Word wealth. So Marjorie Faulstich Orellana is a professor of education at University of California, Los Angeles. And she points out that, you know, anytime you have a cultural group of children who are not the dominant culture and they grow up and they go to school, they have learned one way of speaking in their homes, and they learn a second language at school essentially. And this is kind of, like - your podcast is called CODE SWITCH, right?

DEMBY: Right.

KAMENETZ: This is the wealth that they have because they have their heritage wealth, whether it's another language literally or whether it's a dialect - a way of speaking. Whether that is, you know, a way of storytelling, a way of joking - you know, if you're not the dominant culture, you are learning more than one kind of word. And to frame that as a deficit is so profoundly inverted, right? They're not worse at speaking dominant-language English, they learned a different language.

DEMBY: Right.

KAMENETZ: And now, they're learning a second language. Also, the idea that, you know, the optimal way to speak to your children is by asking them a lot of questions and getting them to display their knowledge - this is kind of a dominant-culture idea. It's cultural relativism in a way, right? It's like saying this is different. It may not be worse, but school has these expectations because school is the dominant culture.

DEMBY: Right. OK.

KAMENETZ: The second strain is maybe not quite as radical. Talking about how, yes, there are differences, and we can't deny that kids who, you know, grow up in poverty are impoverished, right? Poverty is deprivation of some kinds. Parents work longer hours, they're more tired. And then the question becomes, well, how, then, can school and the adults in school and in public life - how can they address these things - address these differences?

DEMBY: So in this school of thinking, you find ways to make the lives of the parents more amenable to the sort of normative way of childrearing - of speaking to your children?

KAMENETZ: You can think about that in terms of the parental intervention, yes. You can also think about it in terms of, how can schools better serve these kids?

DEMBY: Sure.

KAMENETZ: And just one other thing I want to bring in here. Jennifer Keys Adair at the University of Texas at Austin did a study last year where she went to mostly Spanish-speaking communities and talked to everybody at the school - the superintendents, administrators, the teachers, the parents and the children.

DEMBY: OK.

KAMENETZ: And she talked to them about, like, different modes of learning and teaching, basically - showed them very kind of, like, progressive-type classrooms. The kids are speaking up, and they are working on their interests and working independently. And the parents and the teachers all agreed on this idea. They said, well, our kids can't really do that. And if you ask them why, it's kind of like, oh, well, they don't have the vocabulary to have this, like, great learner-centered, project-based curriculum.

DEMBY: Wait. What did they mean? What does that mean?

KAMENETZ: What did they mean by that? What could they mean by that? Adair's conclusion is that the word gap has become, like, a kind of code word. Like, we're not saying poor, we're not saying race, but we say vocabulary and it means these kids can't handle it. They're not good enough - or whatever you want to say about that. It's just, like - it has been instantiated into the minds of educators that there is this lack in these kids.

DEMBY: So educators are saying, like, oh, these kids just don't have the mechanisms to do the stuff that middle-class kids can do?

KAMENETZ: That's right. It's put a scientific veneer on a way of thinking that is sort of all too familiar, that gets repeated again and again.

DEMBY: The soft bigotry of low expectations - that stuff?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. I mean, remember I said that Adair talked to the students also? She talked to first graders. And the first graders also said, we have to sit quietly and listen in class, that's how you be a good learner. You can't talk.

DEMBY: So we're talking about 6-year-olds here, basically, right?

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

DEMBY: I mean, if you're first grade, it's talking about 5 and 6-year-olds.

KAMENETZ: Right.

DEMBY: The sort of instructions about how they should be students is so fundamentally different than the way that other kids, who might be upper class and who might be white, have been getting.

KAMENETZ: Yes. And I don't think we can overstate the importance of that - of how those expectations weigh on kids and shape their own attitude towards learning and toward their own abilities.

DEMBY: So in light of all this evidence that the 30 million word gap research was janky, have any of the institutions that you've mentioned before, who have based their childhood learning programs on that supposed gap that we shouldn't be calling a gap - have they started to rethink their approach to doing that?

KAMENETZ: I think there's changes going on. Like, I don't doubt the deep concerns and the good intentions of anybody in this world, right? They're all very much committed to the idea that every kid should get a great chance in life. And what's starting to dawn on people and what's really hard is to say, we may have gotten it wrong, but we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, right? You don't want to use a study like this to say, well, it doesn't matter what we do for poor kids.

And you can certainly see how a cultural relativism message - if we say, like, oh, like, poor kids have so much word wealth, therefore they don't need extra resources, they don't need any consideration, we'll just celebrate difference, right? And your difference is that you don't know how to read even though you're in eighth grade.

DEMBY: Right.

KAMENETZ: You can't take it that far, right?

DEMBY: Sure.

KAMENETZ: I think what a study like Adair's shows is that deficit thinking does have consequences. And you have to update your language and your way of talking about these things. I mean, giving parents an opportunity to do better - that works. There are studies that have shown that if you intervene and you give parents the data and the ability to change the way that they speak to kids, they can change. But how do you do that in a way that is sensitive to the different ways that different kinds of families communicate? I think that kind of remains to be seen.

DEMBY: So maybe spurring parents to be involved in this way - in the sort of word-intensive way - it's not the be-all, end-all, of this conversation, no pun intended.

KAMENETZ: This happens a lot in education research that I follow. They're like so-and-so thing will become the magic bullet and everybody will fund it. But in the end, you kind of come back to, oh, actually, you also have to have really good schools for kids and good early childhood. And they need health care. And they need clothes. And they need meals. None of it is a substitute for any of the rest of it. And the idea that parents, on their own, are going to kind of make up the gap is - I guess you could call it a uniquely American, optimistic, self-reliant idea. But it's also, like, we don't want to have some big social welfare apparatus - right? - to help people who are poor.

DEMBY: Thank you so much for doing this.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN MY FEELINGS")

DRAKE: (Rapping) Trap, TrapMoneyBenny. This shit got me in my feelings.

MERAJI: That's our show. But before I get to the credits, I called up Lashonda Mitchell to ask her what song she can't get out of her head.

MITCHELL: I take a twerk-fit class on Fridays.

MERAJI: Wait. Say that again. A twerk - what? Twerk-fit?

MITCHELL: Uh-huh. Twerk-fit class. And that's where I first heard this song last week, and I've been singing it ever since.

MERAJI: OK. So the song giving you life right now is "In My Feelings" - Drake.

MITCHELL: By Drake, yes.

MERAJI: And the first time you heard it was at twerk-fit.

MITCHELL: Yes. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN MY FEELINGS")

DRAKE: (Rapping) Before they try and kill me. They got to make some choices. They running out of options 'cause I've been going off. And they don't know when it's stopping. And when you get to topping, I see that you been learning.

MERAJI: Oh, I need to find a twerk-fit class here in LA before taking the "In My Feelings" challenge. Maybe that's something I can get Gene to do with me and we can post to our IG or tweet out or something. Until then, don't forget, you can holler at us in multiple ways. Our Twitter handle is @nprcodeswitch. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast. And if you've already done that, tell your friends to subscribe. One last thing - sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez and Leah Donnella. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and yours truly. And a big shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, Walter Ray Watson and Steve Drummond. Our intern is Angelo Bautista. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's back next week. Peace.

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