Study on Vocabulary Development

I recently read about a study that I found quite alarming. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published their findings titled “The Early Catastrophe. The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” in 1995.

The Study
The professors began their study because they found a difference in the vocabulary sizes of children from low-income families compared to higher income families. Even after the children in the low income families had been taught the same as their higher-income peers, in a preschool setting. So the professors decided to research what was happening in families as children first began to talk. They chose 42 families with children ages 7-9 months. For about 2 ½ years they observed each family for one hour every month. Every thing that went on in the children’s homes was recorded. The study consisted of 13 families in the upper socioeconomic class, 10 middle, 13 lower, and 6 families on welfare. As they observed the families they found that although living different lifestyles they were very much the same. They played and talked with their children. They disciplined and taught them manners. They provided them with many of the same toys. They talked about the same things. All the children learned to talk and be socially appropriate. The difference was in the vocabulary levels of the parents. And the number of words each child was exposed to. The professors observed that as the children grew they became more and more like their parents in vocabulary size, language, and interaction style. About 90% of the words recorded in each child’s vocabulary were also found in their parents. Which meant they weren’t learning words from T.V. but their parents.

The Results
The results are staggering. The table below shows the average differences in the number of words the children heard, based on socio-economic class.

Socio-economic class Words heard per hour Words heard per week Words heard per year Words heard by age 4
Welfare 616 62,000 3.2 million 6.5 million
Working-class 1,251 125,000 6.5 million 11.2 million
Professional 2,153 215,000 11.2 million 45 million

The researchers also found differences in the number of positive and negative statements that were directed at the child. The results of which are shown in the graph below.

Socio-economic class Positive per hour Negative per hour Positive per year Negative per year Ratio positive to negative
Welfare 5 11 26,000 57,000 1 to 2
Working-class 12 7 62,000 36,000 2 to 1
Professional 32 5 166,000 26,000 6 to 1

The Affect
Based on the results of the study the average child on welfare has heard 32 million fewer words by age four than their peer living at a higher economic level. But how much does this early difference in vocabulary development really affect a child. When the children who participated in the study were in 3rd grade twenty-nine of them participated in another study conducted by Dale Walker. The study tested their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. The rate of growth predicted at age 3 was strongly associated with the vocabulary scores, language skill, vocabulary use, and reading comprehension of the children in 3rd grade. Thus showing that if a child has a small vocabulary by age three they will most likely have lower vocabulary test scores in 3rd grade and beyond.

Equally alarming is the amount of negative versus positive statements that each child heard. A child on welfare heard twice as many negative statements than positive statements. Thus their self-esteem will be that much lower than their higher-economic peers when entering kindergarten. A child’s self-image has been found to greatly affect their academic achievement.

What Can You Do
As a parent it is important that you speak to your child. If you don’t have a large vocabulary yourself, learn new words and introduce them. Don’t use the same word each time you describe something. There are many ways to say big like: enormous, gigantic, humongous, huge, immense, large, vast; use them, and expand your child’s vocabulary. If your child is in daycare talk to their provider, make sure they are in a language rich environment where they are talked to, stories are read, and songs are sung.

Reading is also important. Most language consists of 10,000 basic words. Books use “rare words” that are less likely to be heard in conversation. For more information on why reading aloud is so important read my blog: Reading Aloud.

It is also important to focus on praising your child and providing positive reinforcement. Every child is going to get in trouble, so discipline and then move on. Teachers are taught to provide five positive statements for each negative statement that a student hears. This standard should apply to parents as well.

The results of the study are a basis for determining the amount of words a child most likely will hear based on socio-economic level. But your socio-economic level doesn’t determine the vocabulary your child will have. You as a parent determine your child’s vocabulary level and future educational success.

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About Teresa McEntire

Teresa McEntire grew up in Utah the oldest of four children. She currently lives in Kuna, Idaho, near Boise. She and her husband Gene have been married for almost ten years. She has three children Tyler, age six, Alysta, four, and Kelsey, two. She is a stay-at-home mom who loves to scrapbook, read, and of course write. Spending time with her family, including extended family, is a priority. She is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and currently works with the young women. Teresa has a degree in Elementary Education from Utah State University and taught 6th grade before her son was born. She also ran an own in-home daycare for three years. She currently writes educational materials as well as blogs for Although her formal education consisted of a variety of child development classes she has found that nothing teaches you better than the real thing. She is constantly learning as her children grow and enjoys sharing that knowledge with her readers.