Let's Stop Talking About The '30 Million Word Gap' (2023)

The findings discussed in Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children have been cited more than 8,000 times, according to Google Scholar. Chelsea Beck/NPR hide caption

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Chelsea Beck/NPR

Let's Stop Talking About The '30 Million Word Gap' (2)

The findings discussed in Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children have been cited more than 8,000 times, according to Google Scholar.

Chelsea Beck/NPR

Did you know that kids growing up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words by age 3? Chances are, if you're the type of person who reads a newspaper or listens to NPR, you've heard that statistic before.

Since 1992, this finding has, with unusual power, shaped the way educators, parents and policymakers think about educating poor children.

(Video) Story: Let's Stop Talking About The '30 Million Word Gap'

But did you know that the number comes from just one study, begun almost 40 years ago, with just 42 families? That some people argue it contained a built-in racial bias? Or that others, including the authors of a new study that calls itself a "failed replication," say it's just wrong?

NPR talked to eight researchers to explore this controversy. All of them say they share the goal of helping poor kids achieve their highest potential in school.

But on the issue of how to define either the problem, or the solution, there are, well, very big gaps.

With all that in mind, here are six things to know about the 30 million word gap.

1. The original study had just 42 families.

During the War on Poverty in the 1960s, Betty Hart, a former preschool teacher, entered graduate school in child psychology at the University of Kansas, working with Todd Risley as her adviser.

The two began their research with preschool students in the low-income Juniper Gardens section of Kansas City, Kan., explains Dale Walker of the University of Kansas, who counts Hart as a colleague and mentor. "They definitely worked out of their personal concern and experience with young children."

Seeing differences between poor and middle-class children by the age of 3, Hart and Risley decided to look for roots even earlier in children's lives.

Beginning in 1982, they followed up on birth announcements in the newspaper to recruit families with infants as research subjects.


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They eventually chose 42 families at four levels of income and education, from "welfare" to "professional class." All of the "welfare" families and 7 out of 10 of the "working class" families were black, while 9 out of 10 of the "professional" families were white — this will be important later.


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(Video) What is the 30 million word gap?

Starting when the babies were 7 to 9 months old, the researchers visited each house for one hour, once a month, for 2 1/2 years. They showed up generally in the late afternoon, with a cassette recorder, a clipboard and a stopwatch and tried to fade into the background. They were there to record the number of words spoken around the children, as well as the quality and types of interaction (for example, a question versus a command), and the growth in words produced by the children themselves.

2. The study has been cited over 8,000 times.

After 1,200 hours of recordings were collected, the real work began. Transcribing and checking each moment, with their elaborate system of coding, took 16 hours for every hour of tape, Dale Walker explains.

Hart and Risley's study wasn't published until 1992, while their book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, came out in 1995.

From there, it really caught fire. These findings have been cited more than 8,000 times, according to Google Scholar. The book remains one of its publisher's bestsellers more than 20 years later. There is a national research network of over 150 scholars aligned with Hart and Risley and focusing on young children's home environment.

And the impact of this work spread far beyond the ivory tower. "It's had enormous policy implications," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Something about that figure, 30 million words, held people's attention. Not only was it big, it seemed actionable.

Speech — unlike books or housing or health care — is free. If we could somehow get poor parents to speak to their children more, could it make a huge difference in fixing stubborn inequities in society?

The "word gap" drove expanded federal investments in Head Start and Early Head Start. Hart and Risley's work inspired early intervention programs, including the citywide effort Providence Talks in Rhode Island, the Boston-based Reach Out and Read, and the Clinton Foundation's Too Small To Fail.

Both researchers are now deceased. But in Kansas City, where it all began, Dale Walker and others work on research and interventions at the Juniper Gardens Children's Project.

3. Thirty million words is probably an exaggeration. Maybe the gap is 4 million. Maybe it's even smaller.

That eye-popping figure is one of the reasons the study has been so sticky over time. But newer studies have found very different numbers.

Since Hart and Risley's study was published, critics have taken issue with how the data was collected and interpreted.

Author Interviews

Simple Number, Complex Impact: How Many Words Has A Child Heard?

(Video) Going beyond the "30 million word gap"

"Their study is commendable in many ways, but they just got it wrong," says Paul Nation, an expert in vocabulary acquisition at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Nation primarily takes issue with the idea that you can estimate vocabulary growth from small samples of speech, particularly when the samples don't contain the same number of words.

He is one of many to have pointed out that the low-income families in their sample may have been intimidated into silence by the presence of a researcher, especially someone of another race. Educated parents, though, might be more likely to show off by talking more when an observer is present.

Modern technology can get around this observer effect. A nonprofit called LENA manufactures a tiny digital recording device that can be worn by children as young as 2 months old. Software then estimates speech and turn-taking.

While not invisible, it's a lot less intrusive than having a person sitting in the room. Directly inspired by Hart and Risley, LENA is used in school-based and home-based interventions dedicated to closing the word gap in more than 20 states.

Using LENA, scientists published a near-replication of the Hart and Risley study in 2017, only this study had 329 families, nearly 8 times more, and 49,765 hours of recording, from children 2 months to 4 years.

Their conclusion? The "word gap" between high-income and low-income groups was about 4 million by the time the children turned 4, not 30 million by age 3. Only if you compared the most talkative 2 percent with quietest 2 percent of families did you get a gap nearly as wide as Hart and Risley's, says LENA's senior director of research, Jill Gilkerson.

Another just-published study calls itself a "failed replication" of Hart and Risley.

The researchers analyzed field recordings from five different poor and working-class communities. They found that the amount of speech children heard varied from one place to another.

The lowest-income children recorded in South Baltimore heard 1.7 times as many words per hour as did Hart and Risley's "welfare" group. And in the "Black Belt," an area in rural Alabama, poor children heard three times as many words as Hart and Risley's "welfare" group.

The wide variation "unsettles the notion that income alone determines how many words children hear," lead author Douglas Sperry tells NPR.

4. Some people take issue with the whole idea of a "gap"

Sperry and his co-authors fall into a camp that criticizes the "word gap" concept as racially and culturally loaded in a way that ultimately hurts the children whom early intervention programs ostensibly trying to help.

"To look at income alone obscures real questions about the cultural mismatch between children of color and mainstream European children and their teachers as they enter schools," says Sperry. In other words, it's not necessarily that poor children aren't ready for school; it's that schools and teachers are not ready for these children.

Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, has called attention to the "word wealth" experienced by children who grow up learning a different language or even a different dialect than the dominant standard English spoken in school. This would describe not only recent immigrants, but also anyone whose background isn't white, educated and middle or upper class. When they get to school, they must learn to "code switch" between two ways of speaking.

She doesn't disagree that "there's variation in how much adults speak to children," but, she tells NPR, there shouldn't necessarily be a value judgment placed on that.

(Video) The "word gap" doesn't tell the whole story

"Should adults direct lots of questions to children in ways that prepare them to answer questions in school?" she asks, calling that a "middle-class, mostly white practice."

"There are other values, like using language to entertain or connect, rather than just have children perform their knowledge. How do we honor different families rather than have families change their values to align with school?"

Similarly, Sofia Bahena, an education professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, says talking about "word gaps," like "achievement gaps," is an example of what she calls deficit thinking.

"We can talk about differences without resorting to deficit language by being mindful and respectful of those we are speaking or researching about," she explains. "We can shift the question from 'how can we fix these students?' to 'how can we best serve them?' It doesn't mean we don't speak hard truths. But it does mean we try to ask more critical questions to have a deeper understanding of the issues."

Jennifer Keys Adair at the University of Texas, Austin published a study last year of how the "word gap" rubber is meeting the road of schools.

She and her co-authors spoke with nearly 200 superintendents, administrators, teachers, parents and young children in mostly Spanish-speaking immigrant communities. The educators expressed the belief that the children in grades pre-K through third in this community could not handle learner-centered, project-based, hands-on learning because their vocabulary was too limited. And, the children in the study themselves echoed the belief that they needed to sit quietly and listen in order to learn.

Adair says the "word gap" has become a kind of code word. "We can say 'vocabulary.' We're not going to say 'poor' and we're not going to use 'race,' but it's still a marker."

5. The underlying desire to help kids is still pretty compelling, though

Walker says that Hart and Risley were happy to engage with their critics. "They valued that input and the give and take." But, she says, they were sometimes "dismayed" at misinterpretations of their research, such as if people took ideas about the importance of an early start as justification for not trying to improve student outcomes later on in school.

Some boosters agree with critics that the "word gap" may need a reframing.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, with her longtime collaborator Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and other researchers, wrote a scholarly critique of the Sperry study for the Brookings Institution.

"I am worried," Hirsh-Pasek tells NPR, that downplaying the word gap will have "dangerous" consequences. "Whenever you send out a message that 'Hey, this doesn't matter,' the policymakers are listening and say, 'Hey, that's great, we can divert the money.' "

Sperry's measures included "bystander talk" by multiple people in the room, including older siblings and other relatives. So did the LENA study. Hirsh-Pasek says the psychological research is clear that it's the "dance" of interaction between caregiver and child that is crucial to learning speech.

While this point is fairly settled among developmental psychologists, anthropologists may dissent, says Douglas Sperry. In some cultures, such as the Mayans in Central America, addressing young children directly is uncommon, yet people still learn to talk, he notes.

Hirsh-Pasek does agree with the critics that framing the issue as a deficit is wrong. "I'm so sorry that the 30 million word gap was framed as a gap," she says. "I like to talk about it as building a foundation rather than reducing a gap."

But, she adds, the sheer volume of conversation directed at children, not just spoken in their presence, is fundamental to language learning and later success in school. All the cultural variation in the world "doesn't negate the fact that when you look at the averages, there is a problem here."

And what's most important, says Hirsh-Pasek, is that interventions inspired by Hart and Risley are nudging parents in the right direction. "We have made changes and movement in kids, in whole communities."

(Video) Beyond the 30 Million Word Gap


What does the 30 million word gap mean? ›

The 30-million-word gap argues that low-income children of color hear 30 million fewer words within the first three years of life than their more affluent peers. It posits that the way to end academic inequalities is to ensure that low-income children of color are exposed to more words before they enter school.

How do you close the 30 million word gap? ›

How can we close the 30 million word gap?
  1. Talk to your child as you go through daily routines.
  2. Sing to your child as you cook, drive, change a diaper, or get them dressed.
  3. Read to your child.
  4. Count with your child.
  5. Point at pictures and describe what you see.
  6. Play outside. Go to the park.
  7. Use descriptive language.
30 Dec 2019

Is the 30 million word gap real? ›

In the 1990s, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley studied families from different socioeconomic levels and found that their children were exposed to vastly different numbers of words in their formative years—specifically, 32 million more words for higher-income children than for lower-income children.

What was the reason for the 30 million word gap study? ›

They were there to record the number of words spoken around the children, as well as the quality and types of interaction (for example, a question versus a command), and the growth in words produced by the children themselves.

What does the word gap mean in the Bible? ›

Bible Dictionaries - Easton's Bible Dictionary - Gap. Gap. a rent or opening in a wall ( Ezekiel 13:5 ; Compare Amos 4:3 ). The false prophets did not stand in the gap ( Ezekiel 22: : 30 ), i.e., they did nothing to stop the outbreak of wickedness. These dictionary topics are from.

How is the 30 million word gap related to poverty? ›

When extrapolated to the words heard by a child within the first four years of their life these results reveal a 30 million word difference. That is, a child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family.

How many words should a child hear by 3? ›

Some children hear about 21,000 words a day, others hear 6,000 or fewer. By age 3, that difference becomes a substantial word gap that predicts future success. The idea of having a conversation with a toddler or preschooler may make some adults laugh.

Who does the 30 million word gap effect? ›

“By 3 years of age, there is a 30 million word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families.” A recent study shows that the vocabulary gap is evident in toddlers. By 18 months, children in different socio-economic groups display dramatic differences in their vocabularies.

What is the most effective way to close the vocabulary gap? ›

Talk with children and encourage children to talk with one another. Keep the conversation going by asking questions, making comments, and inviting children to think and share their ideas. Read to children daily, taking time to go over new words. Look for books with illustrations that provide clues to word meanings.

Why does the word gap exist? ›

What is the word gap? This idea came from a study done in the 1990s by two psychologists, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, where language data was collected on 42 families of low, middle, and upper-socioeconomic levels. The study arguably showed that there was a 30 million word gap between upper- and lower-class families.

What causes the word gap? ›

Research on the cause of the word gap has primarily focused on SES differences in the individual characteristics of caregivers, such as differences in caregivers' parenting style or in their beliefs about child development (e.g., Hoff-Ginsberg, 1992; Rowe, 2008).

How many words does a child usually say by age 2? ›

Speak in two- and three-word phrases or sentences. Use at least 200 words and as many as 1,000 words. State their first name. Refer to themselves with pronouns (I, me, my or mine)

What is the word gap in education? ›

The "word gap" refers to the difference in the both the quantity of words and the quality of foundational interactions a child hears and experiences in the first few years of life.

Is the language gap real? ›

They found that children were spoken to much more often in the upper income households than in the lower income households, and extrapolating across the children's waking hours, they concluded that there was a 30 million word gap. Some kids were having a lot more language experience.

What is the Million word gap? ›

The “30 million word gap” refers to a research study conducted by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Their study showed that children from lower-income families hear a staggering 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families by the time they are 4 years old.

How did Jesus bridge the gap? ›

Fortunately, God himself stood in the gap for us by sending his Son, Jesus, in human form, to live as a man, die for our sins, and rise from the dead so we could be restored into a personal relationship with him. Clearly, God's heart is moved to act when people cry out on behalf of others.

What is the gap in Christianity? ›

Gap creationists believe that certain facts about the past and the age of the Earth have been omitted from the Genesis account; they hold that there was a gap of time in the biblical account that lasted an unknown number of years between a first creation in Genesis 1:1 and a second creation in Genesis 1:2–31.

What is the word gap theory? ›

The word gap has largely been defined to mean the idea of the observed gap between the spoken and read language in the specific context of American education reform in the context of Hart and Risley; however, other proposed ideas or active research have used it to describe differences in access to language varieties ...

What does the poverty gap tell us? ›

Poverty gap at national poverty lines is the mean shortfall from the poverty lines (counting the nonpoor as having zero shortfall) as a percentage of the poverty lines. This measure reflects the depth of poverty as well as its incidence.

How can we fix the gap between rich and poor? ›

Public education: Increasing the supply of skilled labor and reducing income inequality due to education differentials. Progressive taxation: The rich are taxed proportionally more than the poor, reducing the amount of income inequality in society. Minimum wage legislation: Raising the income of the poorest workers.

How many words should a 12 year old know? ›

12 By the time a child is 12 years old, he/she will understand (have a receptive vocabulary) of about 50,000 words. Vocabulary is the basis for learning language. Educational research shows that vocabulary strongly relates to reading comprehension, intelligence, and general ability.

How fluent should a 3 year old be? ›

By age 3, a toddler's vocabulary usually is more than 200 words. Kids can string together 2- or 3-word sentences. They can talk with you in a conversation that has at least 2 back-and-forth exchanges. Other people can understand your toddler most of the time.

Can too much TV cause speech delay? ›

It isn't so much that language delays are caused by watching television. It's that children benefit most when they engage in conversations with other people. Screen time can create problems if it displaces conversation time and other important, real-world, developmental activities.

How many words does the average person know? ›

Most adult native test-takers range from 20,000–35,000 words. Average native test-takers of age 8 already know 10,000 words. Average native test-takers of age 4 already know 5,000 words. Adult native test-takers learn almost 1 new word a day until middle age.

What did the Hart and Risley study reveal? ›

Based on their findings, Hart and Risley con- cluded that, among the families in their study, there was a significant relationship between the quan- tity and quality of language used by parents and children and families' socioeconomic status.

How many words are in the English language? ›

We considered dusting off the dictionary and going from A1 to Zyzzyva, however, there are an estimated 171,146 words currently in use in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, not to mention 47,156 obsolete words.

What are 3 strategies for improving your vocabulary? ›

Strategies to Improve Your Vocabulary
  • Read Voraciously. Reading is undeniably your most effective technique for learning new vocabulary. ...
  • Make Friends with the Dictionary. ...
  • Use It or Lose It. ...
  • Learn One New Word a Day. ...
  • Understand the True Meaning of Words. ...
  • Maintain a Personal Lexicon. ...
  • Follow a Process. ...
  • Play and Have Fun.
13 May 2022

How can I expand my vocabulary quickly? ›

5 Simple and Effective Ways to Expand Your Vocabulary
  1. Play Word Games. Is there a better way to learn new words? ...
  2. Connect New Words With Familiar Ones. Connect a new word to something familiar so that you can remember it easily. ...
  3. Watch English Movies. ...
  4. Hire a Tutor. ...
  5. Read Every Day. ...
  6. Final Thoughts.

What is the most effective vocabulary building technique? ›

Allowing students to read keywords and add prefixes or suffixes helps them garner the meaning of those words based on how it's used in a sentence. Give your students opportunities to guess the meaning of word parts to support their vocabulary growth. Word parts work best for students with a larger vocabulary.

What is the opposite of the word gap? ›

What is the opposite of gap?
9 more rows

What does gaps mean in slang? ›

(pornography) To depict a dilated anal or vaginal cavity upon penetrative sexual activity.

What does gap mean on a girl? ›

A thigh gap is a space between the inner thighs of someone who is standing with their knees straight and their feet together. It's a so-called standard of beauty particularly applied to women's bodies.

What language is gap? ›

GAP (computer algebra system)
Developer(s)University of St Andrews RWTH Aachen TU Braunschweig Colorado State University TU Kaiserslautern
Written inC
Operating systemCross-platform
TypeComputer algebra system
6 more rows

What are gaps examples? ›

Noun The child had a gap between her two front teeth. The gap between the lead runner and the rest of the field continued to widen. The sheep got through a gap in the fence.

What is a word for gap? ›

chasm, crack, cut, difference, disagreement, disparity, divergence, divide, division, hole, inconsistency, rift, void, aperture, arroyo, blank, caesura, canyon, cleft, cranny.

Is it normal for 3 year old not talking? ›

A 3-year-old who can comprehend and nonverbally communicate but can't say many words may have a speech delay. One who can say a few words but can't put them into understandable phrases may have a language delay. Some speech and language disorders involve brain function and may be indicative of a learning disability.

What is advanced for a 2 year old? ›

While most children at age 2 are experimenting with onomatopoeia (words that describe noises, like “beep beep!”) and starting to ask questions (“Where's Dada?”), a more advanced child might already be speaking in longer sentences with many verbs, such as, “I played and I jumped and I sang!” says Fujimoto.

How many words should a 4 year old know? ›

The typical 4-year-old: Has a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words. Easily puts together sentences of 4 or 5 words.

What is the meaning of the word gapped? ›

Definition of 'gapped'

1. a break or opening in a wall, fence, etc. 2. a break in continuity; interruption; hiatus. there is a serious gap in the accounts.

What does word gap mean in reading? ›

The "word gap" refers to the difference in the both the quantity of words and the quality of foundational interactions a child hears and experiences in the first few years of life. Find Tip Sheets for Families, Caregivers and Early Learning Educators.

What is the God of gaps approach? ›

"God of the gaps" is a theological perspective in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God's existence.

How do you use the word gap in a sentence? ›

Example Sentences

Noun The child had a gap between her two front teeth. The gap between the lead runner and the rest of the field continued to widen. The sheep got through a gap in the fence.

What is another word for big gap? ›

What is another word for gap?
100 more rows

How many words can a child learn in a day? ›

Research has shown that most 18-month-olds learn an average of two to five new words a day; however, little is known about how children process information to learn new words as they move through the preschool years.

How many words should a 5 year old read? ›

Sight Words for 5 year old's

When a child can read the 52 most common words in kindergarten level books, it makes reading easier and more fluent. Soon, they will move on to the top 100 sight words that they will be expected to learn.

What is another word gap? ›

chasm, crack, cut, difference, disagreement, disparity, divergence, divide, division, hole, inconsistency, rift, void, aperture, arroyo, blank, caesura, canyon, cleft, cranny.


1. Nathaniel Serio: "The 30 million word gap, explained"
(Lloyd C. Gardner Fellowship)
2. Understanding Hart & Risley's 30 million word gap research | 20 years later
(LENA Early Talk)
3. Closing the Thirty Million Word Gap | Caitlin Molina | TEDxYale
(TEDx Talks)
4. Dr. Rachel Romeo on the 30 million word gap and conversational turns
(LENA Early Talk)
5. The 30 Million Word Gap
(Kayla Ray)
6. 30 Million Word Gap
(Michele Sprague)
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