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Are You Protecting Your Child from the 30 Million Word Gap?

Your money matters to you, and your baby’s developing brain. That’s right! Your money matters mommas (and papas) and not in the way you may have thought. Did you know that children from lower income households are at an educational disadvantage well before they ever step foot into a classroom? To no fault of their own, children’s early vocabulary skills are directly linked to their parents’ socioeconomic background.

In the 1995 book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children , Betty Hart and Todd Risley set out to discover why children from low-income homes remain well behind their more economically advantaged peers, even years later in school. They discovered that “between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 300 words spoken per hour”. This spoken word difference accumulated to a 30 million words gap by the age of three.

Newer research out of Stanford University found that this word gap appears even earlier. Bjorn Carey, Stanford Psychologist, noted in the 2013 Stanford Report that, “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.”

As a parent, I become indignant at the thought of my household income being a vocabulary and language acquisition barrier for my child. But there’s good news! Our parenting styles and our home learning environments play a critical role in decreasing, even eliminating this gap! We are afforded the opportunity to be our child’s very first teacher. Lucky for us, research has found that talking to children breeds language development despite socioeconomic status. Our daily conversations help our children make connections to the world around them.

We Have the Information, Now What?

Now that we know we hold the power to ensure our children’s reading, comprehension, and educational success, here are a few easy ways to exercise our responsibility and keep the conversation going in the car, at dinner, even during bath time.

Nothing Beats Books: All of the recommendations listed below are great to use on the fly every day. But let’s be clear, NOTHING BEATS BOOKS! Try requesting books instead of cards at your baby shower. Ask for them as birthday and Christmas gifts. Nothing beats reading to your child. There is so much more sophisticated vocabulary used in books than spoken on a day-to-day basis. Many schools and daycare centers have book fairs. Purchase a few every time those events come around. Build your baby’s home library and make sure it’s situated in a location easily accessible for your child's height. You’ll be surprised how often they’ll pull out books and bring them to you for story time.

Selfie Time: Since most of us are obsessive about our cell phones, and have them readily available to document every important incident in our lives, why not whip it out as a conversation starter with our little ones? Pull out your smartphone, sit your cutie on your lap, swipe through those semi-professional photographs and narrate your experiences. Babies especially like seeing themselves in pictures!

Sous Chef: My daughter loves to help out in the kitchen when I’m cooking, so I hand her a spatula and allow her to explore. I talk about everything we’re doing. “We are making chicken today. We have to season the chicken breast with pepper, paprika, salt, and garlic powder. Chicken tastes yummy. It’s delicious!” Try it! You’d be surprised at how quickly your baby learns to shake salt & pepper while saying “salt” and “pepper”.

Walkie-Talkie: When the weather is nice, head outside for a walk around the neighborhood and talk, talk, talk! Point out everything you see. Look up at the sky and say, “sky”. Have your toddler repeat the word as they point to the sky. Point to the trees, the cars, the houses, and the grass. Everything you see is an opportunity to teach a new word! Even if they don’t learn to say the word right away, they very well may have just added a new word to their receptive language, meaning they understand the word now. Eventually your child will start pointing and telling YOU what they see.

Backseat Bookmobile: Keep engaging children’s books in the backseat pockets of the car. Sometimes when my husband is playing chauffer, I’ll hop into the backseat and we read books while riding. You can listen to children books on tape every now and then instead of the radio and talk about what’s happening in the story. For fun, tune into some familiar songs and encourage them to interact with the music as they ride. My daughter loves twinkle, twinkle little star. She has her own little hand motions with the song. If you don’t like the radio, try singing! Your little one will love hearing your amazing (or not so amazing) singing voice.

Baby Babble Bath Time: Bath time has become one of the quickest and easiest ways for me to get some conversation in with my daughter. While she’s exploring the water and splashing all over the place, I toss in some foam letters, foam pictures, and baby water books. She loves showing me all of the words she’s learned by picking up each picture and riddling off apple, cow, car, duck, etc.

Hopefully these strategies are super easy and convenient for you! What are some of your recommendations?

I’d love to hear from you.

Mom. Educator. School Improvement Specialist

Find your voice. Share it. Encourage others to do the same!

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