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The '30 Million Word Gap'

Hello colleagues, Some of you-- especially if you have been involved in family literacy programming-- may be familiar with the claim made by Hart & Risley in a study conducted in 1992 that children who were born into welfare families were exposed to fewer words as babies and toddlers as compared to children born into middle class families. The researchers reported a gap of 30 million words between these two groups of children.

The Hart and Risley study has had enormous influence in early childhood education over the years, and, as a consequence, many family literacy programs have urged practitioners to emphasize the importance of parents' interacting with children to support children's language development.

Today's blog on NPR Ed by Anya Kemenetz highlights some of the critiques of Hart and Risley's original work, which I found pretty fascinating.

Please share your thoughts!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP


Kathy_Tracey's picture

I loved this article! The quote that stood out to me was "it's not that poor children are not ready for school, it's that teachers are not ready for these children".

Much like the flawed ideas on the culture of poverty by Ruby Payne, the idea of the 30 million word gap sounds staggering but the Gap is not there.

With that being said, how do we move away from this idea to develop culturally responsive opportunities so children can succeed in school?

Kathy Tracey

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello colleagues, Some of you may be familiar with the work of Paul Nation, one of the world's leading experts in vocabulary acquisition and an Emeritus Professor in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Study at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.  Several years ago, I read Nation's critique of the Hart and Risley study. Nation explains the design flaws of this study and argues that the conclusions fuel a deficit view of low income families.

For those who take the time to read Nation's critique, you may appreciate understanding the difference between a token and a type in linguistic studies of vocabulary. Chris Turner from Coventry University offers this explanation, "The term "token" refers to the total number of words in a text, corpus etc, regardless of how often they are repeated. The term "type" refers to the number of distinct words in a text, corpus etc. Thus,  the sentence "a good wine is a wine that you like" contains nine tokens, but only seven types, as "a" and "wine" are repeated."

Comments welcome!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Rachel Baron's picture

I liked that quote, too, Kathy!

I also liked Marjorie Faulstich Orellana's idea of "word wealth." I was sitting at the gas station with my window open the other day and heard a conversation which contained some "slang" or "nonstandard speech" in every single phrase. I was mostly able to understand it, although some details (and probably some connotations) were over my head. Reading this article made me think about the kids who grow up surrounded by this language and then get plunged into school. Like me, they probably understand most of what they hear, but may miss details or connotations. By the time they show up in HSE classes, most of them have mastered code-switching, which means that they have multiple ways to describe many different situations, some of which are more specific or more evocotive than the standard English. I like the idea of calling that "word wealth." I wonder how we could build on that wealth as we help students increase their reading and writing skills in the standard English they need for the HSE tests?



Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello Rachel and all, I LOVE the anecdote you shared and your reflection on it. What a brilliant example of "word wealth" in the ways Marjorie Faulstich Orellana describes this idea. I am delighted that you mentioned this author because I was not familiar with her work. I am certain others will enjoy checking out Faulstich Orellano's blog, where she adds more details to her original Huffington Post article on "word wealth," as much as I did. I will definitely be following this scholar's work.

You frame a most essential question for us, Rachel, "I wonder how we could build on that wealth as we help students increase their reading and writing skills in the standard English they need for the HSE tests?"

I'm eager to hear members' thoughts on this!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Stephanie Lindberg's picture

Yes, really an interesting article. One thing I talk about with my students is the idea of different Englishes and how these can be different from academic language. We practice with academic vocabulary and read a lot of different subjects. I also have students use the vocabulary in writing. You are right that most students have learned to do code switching, which I think is a valuable skill, but they are still missing vocabulary and reading skills essential to HSE testing. What are some other ways you all work with building vocabulary?