Hart And Risley Research

New Research Ignites Debate on the ‘30 Million Word Gap’

Several public awareness initiatives have been launched in recent decades to urge parents to spend more time talking with their children. One encourages parents to “Sing, Talk, and Read (STAR)” to their young children, while another asks them to “Talk With Me Baby.” Almost everyone thinks that it is beneficial for children to hear their parents and caregivers converse with them.

This consensus did not evolve in a vacuum, as some have suggested. the 30 Million Word Gap study, which concluded that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for advancing their language development and can have long-term consequences for their success in school and in life, is the inspiration for the public service campaigns. the Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children study, which is the inspiration for the public service campaigns, is the inspiration for the public service campaigns.

In the 1990s, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted a study of families from various socioeconomic backgrounds and discovered that their children were exposed to vastly different numbers of words during their formative years—specifically, higher-income children were exposed to 32 million more words than children from lower-income families. The researchers discovered that the variety in exposure accounted for large disparities in children’s language skills when they began kindergarten, and that this had a direct impact on how pupils fared in their first few years of school.

“The problem of skill inequalities across children at the time of school enrollment is larger, more intractable, and more significant than we had anticipated,” Hart and Risley wrote in the journal Science.

After being published 25 years ago, the findings of the landmark study have had a profound impact on national policies and reform initiatives, including campaigns aimed at “closing the 30 million word gap,” investments in early childhood education reading programmes, and collaborations between the educational and health sectors.

However, new research from psychologists Douglas Sperry and his wife, Linda, has called into question the study’s conclusions, finding that there are fewer obvious correlations between the quantity of words toddlers hear and their family’s socioeconomic situation. Their findings have sparked a growing debate regarding whether biases against people of colour and people of lower socioeconomic status influenced the original study’s methodology—and so tainted the outcomes.

“The original study has had a significant impact on the way educators, parents, and policymakers think about educating disadvantaged children during the last several decades.” But did you know that the figure originates from a single research that began nearly 40 years ago with only 42 households and has since grown to include thousands of people? That some individuals believe it was designed with a racial bias built in?” Anya Kamenetz penned a piece in response to a National Public Radio (NPR) article that went viral, picking up the thread of the argument.

Consequently, what is the ramifications of this dispute for the consensus that has been established around children’s language development over the past two decades?


For nearly three decades, a group of researchers led by Hart and Risley followed 42 Kansas families—13 from wealthy families, 10 from middle-class families, 13 from low-income families, and six from public assistance—from the time their children were 7 to 9 months old until they turned three years old.

Every month, the researchers paid a visit to the families and gathered information for an hour about the adult-child interactions that they observed. It was the observers’ job to record the families’ spoken interactions and take notes on the communication contexts in which they took place, guided by questions such as: Did caregivers take part in their children’s play? Did they communicate with the children on a regular basis? How many times did they encourage or reprimand each other?

In primary school, a young girl is practising her spelling skills.
Nora Fleming is a novelist who lives in New York City.
Based on the 1,300 hours of observations that resulted, Hart and Risley determined that an average child in wealthier families heard more than 2,000 words directed their way during that hour of observation, whereas an average child in a family on public assistance heard less than 600 words directed their way. According to the researchers’ calculations, by the time the children reached the age of four, the disparities in spoken language had resulted in a deficit of almost 32 million words.

According to the findings of the study’s extension, the researchers continued to collect data on some of the children who participated in the initial study as they grew older, and they discovered that the children’s early language abilities predicted improved language skills in elementary school. According to a second study that corroborated those findings, children who had been exposed to more words earlier in life were more likely to have superior language comprehension skills in kindergarten and greater vocabulary expansion throughout elementary school.


The 30 Million Word Gap, on the other hand, has its detractors who argue that the study’s sample of families was far too tiny to sustain the movement it produced. It is cited as an example that just 29 of the initial 42 families were tracked as their children progressed through primary school. In addition, critics such as the Sperrys wonder whether there were broader concerns of bias and structural inequity at play that influenced their interpretations of the data and evidence.

in an interview, Douglas Sperry described the situation as follows: “Imagine you are an African American mother who lives in a housing project.” What are your chances of being quiet or talking a lot when someone comes to videotape you? “Even though you and they both have the best intentions, what are your chances of being quiet or talking a lot when someone comes to videotape you?”

Some critics, including Sperry and others, argue that the study favours White, upper- and middle-class speech norms and that it focuses exclusively on conversations between parent and child, neglecting to take into account cultural differences in how families interact and communicate between themselves. In Sperry’s opinion, the cultural bias of the word gap study undervalues speech activities in varied households. “We should be stating up front that there are political distinctions and power inequalities across the language dialects that are spoken,” he stated.

For example, while children tend to benefit from direct contact with their parent or caregiver, it is possible that they will learn additional language skills by participating in a variety of different types of speech. In order to do this, the Sperrys conducted a recent study in which they attempted to capture a broader language context for the young children participating by assessing “bystander speech,” which was defined as discussions occurring within earshot of the children but not directed at them.

Even that notion, though, is contentious territory. Roberta Golinkoff, an education professor and psychologist at the University of Delaware who was the lead author of a viral post defending the 30 Million Word Gap following the publication of the Sperrys’ study, argues that overheard speech should not be included in word gap estimations. In Golinkoff’s opinion, “young children are not capable of picking up that much from overheard speech,” who has written a number of books (including a best-selling book) on the subject of children’s language development. “To be able to achieve it, you need to know more than one language.”


However, critics of the original study and the movement that grew up around its interpretation largely agree that adults can help children in their care develop by talking to them—and the majority of research supports this conclusion.

Using automated recorders placed inside children’s clothing, researchers in 2017 gathered speech data from 329 families. They discovered some gaps in children’s early language experiences that were similar — but not identical — to the original 30 million word gap. While this was going on, a 2018 study led by researchers at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine how children’s brains reacted while listening to stories. They discovered that young children who had more frequent discussions with their caretakers exhibited different brain patterns than their classmates who did not have such conversations.

In addition, research indicates that these early language development skills are critical for children’s long-term academic achievement in the classroom. Children’s linguistic abilities in kindergarten are found to account for the bulk of the achievement difference between children from households with high and poor socioeconomic level, according to a study conducted in 2007. In addition, there has been extensive research correlating early interventions such as high-quality home visiting programmes, child care, and pre-K with improved early language metrics and better long-term results for children in the past several decades.

The research on language gaps in early childhood, however, is criticised for missing more fundamental takeaways about the deeper racial and economic inequities affecting the lives of children growing up in poverty. Sperry and colleagues note a body of research that has been building since the 1960s that shows that a family’s socioeconomic status and parental education levels have a significant impact on children’s learning.

As a result, scholars who support Hart and Risley frequently agree with them and generally urge policymakers to do more than simply fund public service initiatives. It is imperative that public policy take a proactive approach to addressing the underlying structural issues that families face, while also continuing to educate adults on the need of engaging in early talks with young children. “There are horrible and remarkable inequities in American society,” says Golinkoff, underscoring the point. “We will not be able to address things like the word gap with palliative kinds of intervention until we do something about these inequities.”