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The 30 Million Word Gap


A 1995 study found that by the age of three, children in low-income homes knew 30 million less words that children raised in upper-class homes. They found that this word gap was due to the fact that children in lower-income homes were not spoken to as often as children in high-income homes. Newer research shows that the gap is probably closer to 4 million than 30 million. More importantly, this new research shows that a word gap exists between children who are more often engaged in conversation than those who are not regardless of socioeconomic status. No matter the size, this word gap is important because it has lasting effects on learning.

Language Development in a Nutshell

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To understand the word gap, you have to know a little bit about language development. From birth to the age of five, children develop language skills at breakneck speed. These first five years of language development are the most critical. During this time, the brain is developing, so the more stimulation, the better. The more the brain is being engaged in language while the brain develops, the more pathways the brain will create. This makes language skills and communication easier to learn.

Somewhere between nine and 18 months, children typically say their first word. By 18 months, most children know somewhere between 50 to 150 words and can put together short sentences of two or three words. By two years old, children can typically use more than 300 words and understand close to 1,000 words. From there, language starts to take on more meaning. By age three, children use language for more than asking for things they want. They can talk about past experiences and use words for pretend play. By preschool, most children are beginning to understand the rules of language. They can explain things and connect thoughts.

During these crucial language developmental years, the more words children are exposed to, the quicker and easier they learn language. The other important thing to know is that learning language now helps with learning to read later on.

What is the Word Gap?

The word gap is what is referred to when children lack early language or reading skills. It’s most commonly referred to in education. There is debate among researchers about the size of the gap and what factors influence it, but what is certain is that a gap exists. Some research shows a relationship between low language skills and socioeconomic status. However, recent studies show that a gap exists regardless of income level when adults do not talk to children frequently enough.  

daily mom parent portal word gap

A lot of children are not learning enough language when it matters most. Language development is important at a young age because it sets the stage for learning later on. Children who start school with a word gap have a harder time learning to read. They are slow to show growth in their vocabulary and reading skills. Children in the 1995 study were assessed at nine years old and showed lower academic success than their peers.

Erasing the Gap

The good news is that this word gap can be prevented. Parents can support children’s early language development in a number of ways. Just talking to children from an early age could help their language skills. One study found that the more baby talk words like “night-night” and “choo-choo” a baby heard, the more quickly they were able to understand words. Language development does not stop after our children are babies. Preschool-age children who regularly have conversations with adults have stronger connections between parts of their brain that are important for language.

daily mom parent portal word gap

Conversations do not only have to be between parents and children. Any adult conversations, such as with a teacher, are helpful to language development. The most influential interactions are back and forth conversations where children have a chance to take part in the conversation. These adult interactions are especially helpful for children who are at a higher risk of a delay, like children who had been exposed to maternal substance abuse or abuse at a young age. These children also benefit from conversations with other children. Researchers found that children who heard the most from their peers learned more new words and spoke more during the course of a year.

Although researchers may argue about all the contributing factors to the word gap, it is clear that a gap exists. Children need to be spoken to from the time they are born. As they get older, they need to be engaged in meaningful conversations with other children and with adults. The bottom line is that the more words children are exposed to at a young age, the more language skills they will develop.

Check out this article on Early Literacy and the Importance of Reading to Young Children.


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Sources: The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3, Mapping the Early Language Environment Using All-Day Recordings and Automated Analysis, Language Development in Children, Developing Early Literacy, Adult-child Conversations Strengthen Language Regions of Developing Brain, Baby Talk Words Build Infants’ Language Skills, Importance of Language Development in Low-income, High-risk Children

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I am a father of three and my wife is a registered nurse specialized in children.

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