Peter A. Gilbert has been Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council since 2002 and Robert Frost's executor since 1992. He was previously Senior Assistant to Dartmouth College President James O. Freedman, a litigator at the Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr, and a faculty member at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts. He is a frequent commentator on Vermont Public Radio and author of I was Thinking . . . Travels in the World of Ideas (2012). He received an honorary degree from Saint Michael’s College in May 2014.
The Word Gap
Not too long ago, one of the Vermont Humanities Council’s early literacy program leaders was encouraging a well-intentioned mother to talk—and read a lot—with her very young child. The mother replied, in effect, why should I talk with him? He can't understand what I'm saying anyway.
Culturally, this is a deeply ingrained common misconception. But what we now know is that hearing language is the way children learn language, and how brains develop in important ways. And if the brain connections associated with language aren't developed early on, unfortunately that cognitive foundation for language won't be as strong down the road.
Researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley studied the actual number of words spoken to young children from families at three different socioeconomic levels. The differences were astonishing. Children in low-income homes hear, on average, about 600 words an hour. Kids in middle-class homes hear about 1,500 words an hour, and kids in professionals' homes about 2,100 an hour! That means that by the time all of these kids reach the age of four, the more affluent children have heard an incredible 32 million more words than the low-income kids.
Not only that, those words are more varied and complex, and more positive. By age four, the more affluent children had been verbally discouraged about 120,000 times—but encouraged about 750,000 times—more than six times as often. But kids of low-income families had been verbally discouraged 250,000 times, and encouraged only 120,000 times—negatives outweighing positives more than two to one.
In part that's because if parents and others don't talk with the kids very much, much of what they do say is "business talk"—not fun talk—and so it's more likely to be less positive: “Stop that.” “Be quiet.” “Cut that out.” “I said no.” According to a report issued by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, lots of negative feedback early on affects one's attitudes about oneself. Lots of positive feedback early on also affects one’s attitudes about oneself—for the better.
This report shows that children who have loving and supportive interactions with the adults in their lives form secure attachments to those adults—and subsequently are more likely to develop positive social and emotional skills and gain a sense of competence and confidence. On the other hand, insensitive or threatening communication between adults and children can cause insecure attachments to develop, which can make children feel badly about themselves, including feeling that they are unimportant.
The importance of a child developing a positive attitude about himself or herself is hard to overstate. Its effect never ends.
The quantity of words a child is exposed to can also have a lasting effect. Children who haven’t been in a language-rich environment have a hard time catching up cognitively and verbally with those who have. That’s in part because we learn new words by being able to figure out what they mean when we hear them in context. But if we don't know some of the key words that are part of that context, we can’t figure out the meaning of the new words, and so our vocabulary doesn’t increase, and the problem compounds itself.
Significantly, research found that the kids of affluent parents who are uncommunicative didn't do as well down the road, and the kids of talkative low-income parents did very well.
We know the number of words young children (including infants and toddlers) hear matters—to their intelligence, their ability to read, and how prepared they are to learn later on in school. With good nurturing—when parents talk and read with kids a lot every day, and where there’s a rich and positive verbal environment—kids of all backgrounds are enabled to reach their full potentials. And that is, in so many words, good for us all.