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Black History Month: "The 30 Million Word Gap"

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley did a study to examine the impact of home-life (in early childhood) on a child’s ability to communicate later in life. Hart and Risley recruited 42 families to participate in the study including 13 high-income families, 10 families of middle socio-economic status, 13 of low socio-economic status, and 6 families who were on welfare. They made monthly observations of the children from seven months until age three. Researchers found that 86% to 98% of the words used by each child by the age of three were derived from their parents’ vocabularies. Based on their observations, children from families on welfare heard about 616 words per hour, while those from working class families heard around 1,251 words per hour, and those from professional families heard roughly 2,153 words per hour. In summary, they concluded that children from better financial circumstances had far more language exposure when compared to their peers. Later studies (Dudley-Marlin & Lucas, 2009; Michaels, 2013), debunked this study, stating that the results were largely exaggerated and a misrepresentation of lower and working class families.

However, despite this exaggeration, children of low-income and minority families continue to perform worse academically than their higher income and white peers. As a school based speech-language pathologist at a Title 1 school, I find that the discrepancy is glaringly obvious. The minority (including English language learners) students are referred for special education testing more often and they tend to perform worse on standardized testing. When I go to evaluate a student in the areas of speech and language, I often find that the problem is often in their limited understanding of vocabulary. It’s immediately noticeable because these students often have difficulty understanding the questions or instructions. Standardized testing often pulls from a control group that is not very diverse. The test questions and instructions often have unfamiliar vocabulary words which make it difficult for these students to even understand what they are being asked to do. How can you do well on a test that doesn’t even ask questions that you understand? If you asked a doctor to take the Bar exam, they would have no prior exposure to “legalese” and would likely fail the test with flying colors.

So, although there is likely not a “30 million word” gap, there is a clear discrepancy in language enrichment for children of different socioeconomic and racial groups. Experts offer various strategies on how to close this gap. As a school-based SLP, my go-to is always related to academics. If early language exposure directly relates to future academic success, then the best way to address language is to somehow tie into academic areas. Reading is an excellent area to build on language and vocabulary skills. Three of my favorite reading strategies that encourage expansion of vocabulary are: previewing the book (looking through the pictures), pacing/pausing during read alouds and discussing/reviewing the book.

1. Previewing the book

Before you read the book, look through the pictures and discuss what you know based on what you see. This is a great time to check out any unfamiliar vocabulary and make predictions about what the book may be about. Here is a link to my video where I discuss this step in detail.

2. Read the book

When you are reading the book to your child, it is important to have read the book ahead of time. This gives you a sense of the words that they may not know or any concepts that you may have to further explain. Here is a link to my video where I discuss this step in detail.

3. Discussing the book

After reading the book, it’s important to make sure your child understands the story. This can be done through asking open-ended questions, “What was the book about?” You can also be more specific and focus on specific story elements (e.g. character, problem, setting, solution). Similarly, it’s good to practice retelling the story using “narrative language”, or language specific to telling a story or recounting events. This language includes words like “first, next and finally”. Here is a link to my video where I discuss this step in detail.

There are many ways to address vocabulary development in kids. For the purposes of this article, I wanted to focus specifically on vocabulary during reading. I hope this was a good starting point for you all! Good luck and stay safe out there!


Dudley-Marling, Curt & Lucas, K.. (2009). Pathologizing the language and culture of poor children. Language Arts. 86. 362-370.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

Michaels, S. (2013). Commentary: Déjà Vu All Over Again: What’s Wrong With Hart & Risley and a "Linguistic Deficit”; Framework in Early Childhood Education?. LEARNing Landscapes, 7(1), 23-41.

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