There is no ‘Word Gap’ (Too bad that we created so many bad policies based on this study)

Back in the 1990s, a team of researchers spent two and a half years visiting the homes of close to four dozen families with young children, starting when the kids were 7 months old. Equipped with tape recorders and notebooks, the researchers—led by two Kansas psychologists named Betty Hart and Todd Risley—spent an hour per week in each home, recording every word a child’s primary caregiver said to the child during the sessions. After transcribing each conversation and then analyzing the exchanges as a whole, the researchers (who have both since passed away) discovered major differences in the number of words spoken in middle-class families and in lower-income ones.

The result of their research was a landmark study published in 1995, which maintained that a typical child whose parents are highly educated and working professionals is exposed to roughly 1,540 more spoken words per hour than a typical child on welfare. Over time, they concluded, this word gap snowballs so much that by age 4, children in rich families have been exposed to 32 million more words than children in poorer ones.

The study was a sensation, with the media and policymakers fixating on the so-called “word gap” as a key source of longer-term academic disparities between poor and rich kids. It was immediately embraced by academic researchers, and was cited in more than 7,000 academic publications. It influenced welfare initiatives, government pilot programs, and grant campaigns. The Obama administration championed efforts to close the “word gap,” organizing a campaign to raise awareness of the issue and to encourage parents to talk more to their children.

Now, a new study has failed to replicate Hart and Risley’s findings, further complicating the legacy of this body of research and renewing a long-standing debate among researchers about just how large disparities of language and vocabulary are among different social classes—and how much those differences matter, if at all.

More here

13 thoughts on “There is no ‘Word Gap’ (Too bad that we created so many bad policies based on this study)

  1. who have both since passed away

    I wonder if transcribing the speak of people talking to toddlers doesn’t increase the risk of death.


  2. I feel like this is exactly the sort of situation where a lot of UMC parents would feel, “I MUST PARENT AT 110%!!!”

    I can assure you that I would parent differently home alone with a 7-month-old as opposed to being followed around by a crew with a tape recorder.


  3. Even if the study were replicated, showing there is a word gap isn’t the same thing as showing the word gap is on the causal path of child development or class-replication or whatever. There are lots of spurious correlations.

    There’s a reason why good practice is to test the actual intervention in a pilot program before going full scale.


    1. Right. There may or may not be differences in speaking styles to young children that are roughly class based, or there may or may not be a discrepancy in number of words (although the methodologies are shaky there too), but there’s zero evidence that there’s a correlation between volume of words heard and later achievement. It’s also research that’s invalid cross-culturally, which would point to any correlation being spurious.


    1. Cranberry,

      Nice catch.

      This bit was interesting:

      “Young children do not profit from overheard speech about topics of interest to adults.”

      I have a young child at home (5.5), and while I think that having adult/adult or adult/older child speech in her environment has been helpful to her, it was very clear for a while (3ish?) that she was only picking up maybe one word per sentence from that kind of speech, and often completely misunderstanding what was being said. I think she got something out of overhearing speech that was way over her head (and that’s gotten to be truer and truer as she gets bigger), but early on I think it is true that she got the most benefit from speech directed to herself, on topics she could understand, have opinions on, and contribute meaningfully to.

      But as she gets bigger, she’s able to participate more and more meaningfully in conversations that weren’t primarily addressed to her.


      1. bj said,

        “I can’t believe that baby T is over five. Time sure speeds by.”

        No kidding!

        Being a little person in a household full of big people has made her very ambitious. She wants to do all the things.


  4. In terms of academics embracing it, the only academics I know are economists and med school professors. The psychologists and L1 acquisition linguists I know have always thought it was a total load of crock.


      1. Right. And they’re great at getting money from people who like to hear that substantive social problems are the fault of poor people doing things wrong and not massive social inequality and a failing welfare state.


  5. I think Laura’s article does a good job of describing the consequences of the original study and the new study (I did not know that word detectors were a thing — I can’t find them at my library. But a “free book” was a big deal when my kids were born.

    I would quibble about calling this a non-replication, which in my usage would require failure to replicate an identical study.

    In this case I think the exclusion of professional parents from the study is a potential confound.

    I disagree about the recorders though which I think are better methodology for observing natural behavior. Everyone alters their behavior when they are being observed. And having your parenting observed — huge.

    Also nothing about the study particularly supported causation. It’s one more example of research that promises cheap, quick fixes to significant problems in society that gets way oversold. It is frustrating that the list is so long.


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