Equipped with tape recorders and notebooks, a team of researchers led by two Kansas psychologists, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, conducted intensive studies of the home life of children in the 1990s. Over two and a half years, they visited the homes of close to four dozen families with young children, starting when the kids were 7 months old. They recorded every word that child’s primary caregiver said to their child during weekly, one-hour sessions.
After transcribing each conversation and then analyzing the exchanges as a whole, the researchers discovered major differences in the number of words spoken in middle-class families and in lower-income ones.
Their landmark study published in 1995 found that a middle class child was exposed to roughly 1,540 more spoken words per hour than a child on welfare. Over time, they concluded, this word gap snowballs so much that by age 4, children in wealthier families were exposed to 32 million more words than children in poorer ones. This “word gap” study was used to explain academic disparities between poor and rich kids, and a huge impact on public policy.
15 thoughts on “Good Parenting On Steroids: Part 4. on What Worked For Ian”
I’ve always loved this story of how you invented and pulled together the implementation of narration, floortime, and behavioral analysis that worked for you and your little guy.
“If he wanted to play with the trains, I would lie down next to him on the floor and say, “Here comes Thomas. He is going up the hill. He is hitting Percy. Is Percy or James red?”
And, this tidbit particularly amuses me, “Thomas is hitting Percy”, which strikes me as a boy mom in action. I can’t imagine having scripted that scenario with my elder, a girl (and then, not the boy, either, because I am naturally a girl mom, who grew up with only sisters).
If I every have the chance, it’ll be an experiment to do with a girl grandchild!
And, following up on your tweet, I agree that parents have to figure out what their children need and do what they can, not imagine that it’s being taken care of.
On the other hand, the scenarios I see in the remaining high schoolers in my social circle is kids whose “learning loss” is not being ready to take precalculus in high school (unlike the two older brothers). I don’t have a high schooler anymore, but I wouldn’t be willing to address that loss with extra intervention when there is so much else to catch up on.
But, then, that makes me wonder what parents do when the loss is not being ready for what would have been the regular class track (I don’t know what that is, which says something about my world).
I have serious concerns about the word gap study. I don’t know what other people say about it, but the biggest problem I see is that middle class parents are more likely to put on a good show when authority figures are watching, so you don’t actually know how they would act if they weren’t being followed around.
One cultural difference that is very likely to be present, though, is attitude toward TV. In some homes, the TV is on loud ALL THE TIME, and that has to make it difficult for small children to have actual conversations with adults.
“Studies report a link between TV and language development in young children. The more time kids spend watching television, the more slowly they learn to talk.”
“As you might expect, background television can be distracting. In one experiment, children’s play becomes less focused when a television was on in the background (Schmidt et al 2012).”
“Babies and toddlers learn language most readily when we engage them in one-on-one conversation. So if young children spend lots of time watching TV — and thereby lose opportunities to engage in conversation — they are at a disadvantage.”
“Researchers discovered that social talk — one-on-one, back-and-forth conversation between adults and their children — was linked with better language development. The more time babies and toddlers were included in adult conversations, the more quickly their language skills improved.”
“By contrast, listening to adult monologues — including storytelling — was only weakly correlated with language development. The effect of two-way conversations was almost 6 times greater than the effect of merely listening to adults talk.”
When my oldest was a baby, I listened to audiobooks all the time, but once she started to talk as a toddler, I regretfully stopped, because I felt like I needed to be more responsive to verbal interactions with her.
(Did I do that sort of thing for my third child? Sorry, I’m going to have to take the 5th on that.)
That’s an interesting point. My wife told me that for a lot of the kids she works with who live in poor households with often 8 or more people crammed in a one bedroom apartment, the tv is what keeps everyone from killing each other. It’s interesting what the impact of more affordable housing could be.
The Hart and Rissley study started a line of research that should be continued; there is so much more to be learned about children’s exposure to (and participation in) conversation. I think that educated parents are well aware of the gist of the study; they seem to talk constantly to their children, following the advice to have their speech be interactive and require real attention to meaning.
On the other hand, my family of origin (and many I knew) had well-educated parents who did not talk all that much to their children. For one, they were larger families (3-5 kids) and the parents had a somewhat old-school approach to parenting — love them, feed them, find a good school district when the time comes, but don’t bombard them with talk (I personally could not have tolerated constant talk). All the kids ended up highly literate and did well in school to varying degrees. Could it be that a less-intense conversational model is actually just fine? Is there a “secret sauce” that must be present in such parent-child interactions that is being lost in the attention to raw volume of words and the emphasis on back-and-forth interactions?
The problem with Hart & Risley, as with many studies on child development and learning, is the overhype of the results. Small sample sizes, with a notable correlation, followed by hyping of interventions (20 years later in this case) as though singular, parent led changes in how children grow up will make significant differences for all children. (I’d say we’ve seen this Orton-Gillingham and ABA as well as many other interventions).
On Amy’s point about a potential differential observer effect (lower SES families clam up while higher SES families perform for the observer), a subsequent study using passive tech monitoring showed smaller word gaps: https://pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/2016_AJSLP-15-0169.
I was once videotaped “playing” with my child in a study and I’m pretty sure my performance did not match my usual behavior. Now researchers know this, and that difference doesn’t invalidate studies, just suggests that effect size and other variability need to be considered.
But none of these quibbles about the size of the effects and whether they can be applied as national measures without changing anything else (say, the time parents have to interact with their children when they are working three jobs) argues against what Laura described doing: drawing from instinct and the known literature (I don’t know how much there was in early 2000) to implement what she thought was appropriate for her own family. The danger comes of taking a sample of one (or ten or twenty) and telling everyone else they would have the same outcomes with the same intervention.
Oh totally agree. If children are actually delayed in their speech (or any other ability), it makes sense to be sure that they have extra exposure to the activities that are an issue for them. Much as children with cerebral palsy that manifists as difficulty with speech do receive speech therapy from a very young age. And everyone in their household is instructed to keep talking to them even if their replies are incomprehensible.
“…what Laura described doing: drawing from instinct and the known literature (I don’t know how much there was in early 2000) to implement what she thought was appropriate for her own family.”
I took an intro to linguistics course years ago (LOVED that class) and one of the things they mentioned is that little kids learn to talk, even in traditional societies where the cultural model is that you don’t talk to non-verbal children. Language is a very powerful natural drive for neurotypical kids.
But this offer presumably not valid for non-neurotypical kids…
“(Did I do that sort of thing for my third child? Sorry, I’m going to have to take the 5th on that.)”
That’s where the older kids fill in/help out!
“On the other hand, my family of origin (and many I knew) had well-educated parents who did not talk all that much to their children.”
And what if the parents themselves are not very good with social talk? I talk all day, and when I get home I want to be quiet for a bit. My husband doesn’t talk much at work, but he also doesn’t talk much in general, either.
S and I were talking about her German language learning today. She is struggling (though let’s face it, German can be difficult). She really regrets not learning a language when she was younger. (I managed to bite my tongue and not point out that I offered the opportunity a few times.) She thinks that learning any second language would have made her brain more elastic and receptive to the German. She did have a few years of Spanish in HS, but she says high school foreign language education is trash (her word).
I’ve been thinking a lot about multilingualism recently and I agree that HS language instruction in the US is ineffective for producing communication ability (which includes both understanding & production, especial in spoken language). I think language learning in the US moves too quickly to language arts in the language, which emphasizes literature and reading. When I look back on my German, I see that I got pretty good at reading, kind of OK at writing (but not good), while remaining pretty terrible at spoken language (both comprehension and production).
I think deliberate speaking — the techniques described here for teaching someone who isn’t picking up language quickly — are necessarily for multilingualism when teaching a language that someone doesn’t spend most of their time speaking.
As with reading (maybe for many) and first languages (for some), I think we’ve made too many presumptions about learning through exposure based on the experiences of a minority of learners. And, so we English speakers, speaking the lingua franca, give up when it gets more challenging.
Wendy said, “She did have a few years of Spanish in HS, but she says high school foreign language education is trash (her word).”
I have mixed feelings about high school Spanish. On the one hand, it’s the most obviously useful foreign language studied in the US and a lot of Americans do wind up having some basic communication skills in Spanish, so I think it’s not a complete waste of time. On the other hand, given how unseriously American kids approach Spanish (the supposedly “easy” foreign language), I can’t imagine that it helps a lot with third language acquisition, especially of a non-Romance language.
I will say that there’s a stage of serious language study that I can only describe as “pain.” Pain is part of the process. (This insight brought to you from me in St. Petersburg Russia, spring 1994.) You even see this with toddlers learning their first language, even when there’s no language disability. It’s just SO FRUSTRATING not to be able to communicate and it makes them ANGRY! But then, hopefully, you do the work, get through the frustrating stage, and achieve a skill that you will have for the rest of your functioning adult life.
bj said, “When I look back on my German, I see that I got pretty good at reading, kind of OK at writing (but not good), while remaining pretty terrible at spoken language (both comprehension and production).
“I think deliberate speaking — the techniques described here for teaching someone who isn’t picking up language quickly — are necessarily for multilingualism when teaching a language that someone doesn’t spend most of their time speaking.”
I didn’t get very far with Russian conversation in the classroom. Once I got my basic classroom knowledge of Russian, I’ve made the most language progress in one-on-one conversational situations, either just informal with a friend or roommate or with a tutor. The classroom environment just really cuts down on practice time.
I stopped doing anything with my Russian about 11 years ago. I got pregnant with my third kid, my Russian tutor got pregnant with twins, etc., and then I didn’t have the money or the time or a tutor available for quite a while.
Since the war in Ukraine started this spring, I’ve been living on Russian-language youtube for the first time in my life and it’s been life-changing. (I seriously watch several hours a day–primarily Russian opposition youtube and Ukrainian Russian-language content, which there is actually a ton of.) After a number of months of that, I started writing letters in Russian to political prisoners in Russia. I hadn’t written anything substantial in Russian for 22+ years! Youtube is AMAZING for the language learner. You can replay things, a lot of stuff has subtitles, etc. I have started looking for a Russian tutor again (I haven’t done substantial spoken Russian for 11 years and I hate how I sound), but youtube alone is fantastic in terms of providing access to different kinds of language from different speakers. I somewhat regret that I didn’t have access to it as a young language student, although I probably would have just goofed off on the internet if I’d had the internet then.
Also, google docs gives me suggestions for my Russian spelling and grammar! It’s great! I also love google translate and being able to look words up online (although I still need my big paper dictionary for some things).
I’ve also done some experiments with Ukrainian on youtube. I know a lot of Russian and I’ve had several years of Polish and this year, I’ve had a lot of experiences where I know that a given video is interesting…but it’s in Ukrainian, and I don’t technically know any Ukrainian. It was very tough sledding to begin with, but I’m getting more and more out of the videos I watch. Again, subtitles are very helpful.
“It’s just SO FRUSTRATING not to be able to communicate and it makes them ANGRY! “!
!!!! Yup, and many bilingual English speakers give up at that point, including the toddlers that parents are trying to bring up in multilingual homes.
There’s (to me) a new community on the internet of what I will call “voluntary” multilingual homes with resources These voluntary multilinguals have government resources in Europe, because Europeans who aren’t English are worried that their children are going to grow up mostly monolingual in English and lose their other languages (including those who are now living in English speaking countries). So there’s study in how to produce multilingualism when it’s easier to just learn English and be done with it. A group parents involved in promoting multilingualism ran “course” on You Tube, started during the pandemic where they reviewed the modern science.
bj said, “There’s (to me) a new community on the internet of what I will call “voluntary” multilingual homes with resources These voluntary multilinguals have government resources in Europe, because Europeans who aren’t English are worried that their children are going to grow up mostly monolingual in English and lose their other languages (including those who are now living in English speaking countries). So there’s study in how to produce multilingualism when it’s easier to just learn English and be done with it. A group parents involved in promoting multilingualism ran “course” on You Tube, started during the pandemic where they reviewed the modern science.”
My sis is married into a German family. She and her husband lived in Germany for their first few years of marriage before moving back to the US (and eventually your part of WA). Sis and her husband and kids speak German at home (they have always had a lot of family and friends visiting from Germany and they’ve done a lot of long Christmas visits to Germany). Sis didn’t actually study German in high school in the US, but she did an exchange program to Germany in high school and eventually moved to Germany to do college there.
My older nephew has been studying at a German college for several years now and he’s about to start a really yummy internship. Sis says that corporate folk there looooove his background.
Meh, I suddenly remembered that the timeline was a bit more complicated than that.
My older nephew did a few years in a German school. I believe he washed out early on (he didn’t make the cut in 4th grade) and then he did the rest of his K-12 school career in the US.
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