A few years ago, as I was prepping to teach a class to child care providers, I came across an alarming statistic about the language skills of low income children compared to their middle class and higher income counterparts. Recently, as I was doing some research for my presentation on Emotional Intelligence, I came across the research study that provided this statistic, and a wealth of information about how this staggering statistic can exist.
In today’s blog post, I am going to review the article The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 (hint, the staggering statistic is located within the title!) to share with you how important the early childhood years are for helping children to develop the lifelong language skills they will need to be successful in life.
Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, researchers at the University of Kansas, had previously launched an intervention program targeted at building the everyday language of young children in poverty stricken areas because their research suggested that children from low-income neighborhoods lacked the language skills and the vocabulary needed to read the content of text books in the later educational years.
The results of their study were disappointing: the short term results indicated that both the low-income and high-income children who participated in the study showed an increased use of advanced vocabulary words, which was a direct effect of the intervention program. However, by the time the children had reached kindergarten, the early intervention program appeared to have little to no effect on the language skills of the low income children. By kindergarten age, the discrepancy in language skills between the low income and higher income children that participated in their program was great, and consistent with the values that had supported their decision to launch the early intervention program in the first place.
The researchers were frustrated to find that their intervention seemed to have a short term effect, but did not create a lasting effect once participation in the intervention program stopped. So, they turned their sights to another research study, one that would look at the family environment and its effect on the children’s long-term language skills and vocabulary.
The researchers selected a group of children between 7 and 9 months of age who belonged to a variety of different demographic categories. The researchers categorized the participants by income-level (based on the parents’ occupations), race and sex. Of the 42 families who actively participated in the study from start to finish, 13 families were considered upper socioeconomic status (SES) (also referred to as professional families within the study), 10 families were middle SES , 13 were lower SES and 6 families were on welfare.
The researchers spent 2 ½ years observing these families for one hour each month in the child’s home. They attempted to record everything that went on during that hour-long observation, including what was happening in the child’s home, what the child was saying and what the adult or other members of the family were saying to the child. They began when the children were 7 to 9 month of age and were therefore not speaking yet, and continued with their research to watch the child learn to speak, form sentences, and communicate verbally with others.
The researchers learned early on that the type of language being used in the differing families was strikingly different and that the influence of the home environment on the child’s language development was strong. They found that between 86% and 98% of the words that were a part of the child’s vocabulary were also words in their parents’ vocabulary and that the number of words kids spoke correlated with the number of words their parents spoke to them.
But the major shock factor was the sheer number of words that children heard depending on the SES of their family. In a given week, it was estimated that the average child in an upper SES family heard 215,000 words, while the average child in a low SES family heard only 125,000, and the average child in a family on welfare heard only 62,000.
That information was extended to show the difference in words spoken in a year and four years for a child in each SES: 11.2 million and 45 million words for an upper class child, 6.5 million and 26 million words for a lower class child and 3.2 million and 13 million words for a child on welfare. These numbers indicated that by the time children were ready to start kindergarten, assuming no early intervention programs had taken place, the child on welfare had heard 13 million fewer words than the children from lower class families, and 32 million fewer words than the children from upper SES families.
No wonder there continued to be a major gap in language skills between low income and higher income children!
Another shocking result of the study—and one they were not initially even measuring for—was the amount of affirmative statements to discouraging statements depending on income-level. They found that higher income families were significantly more likely to provide supportive, affirmative statements to their children compared to discouraging statements, and that families on welfare were actually significantly more likely to provide discouraging statements than affirmative statements.
Children in upper SES families received encouragements to discouragements at a ratio of 6:1. The ratio for lower class families was 2:1 and welfare families was actually 2:1.
The researchers again took this information and extrapolated it out to a four-year time span and found that children in an upper SES family experienced on average 560,000 more instances of encouragements than discouragements, while a child in a lower SES family experienced only about 100,000 more in a four year time period. But the discouraging number was that of children living in welfare families, where the children likely experienced 125,000 more instances of discouragement than encouragement.
In the next post, I share some tips to help you to counteract these statistics and help ensure that your child shows numbers like the upper SES, regardless of your income level. But until then, just let these statistics sink in.
Are you speaking enough to your child on a daily basis? When was the last time you talked to your preverbal child just because? When was the last time you talked to your slightly verbal child? Was your last conversation with your child only because he needed a discouragement for his behavior?
If you don’t like your answers to these questions, then check out the next post to receive some tips to change the way you talk to your child and make both of you feel better about the impact that your language will have on him in the future!