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Glasscock School of Continuing Studies

The Thirty Million Word Gap

In the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children (1995) and 2003 summary article “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley  reported on a study investigating language development in young children. Among other findings,  Hart and Risley’s extrapolation of data indicated that children from “professional” families would hear roughly 30 million more words by age 3 than children from “welfare” families.  Although the researchers did find a correlation between socio-economic status (SES) and the number of words young children heard, they also found differences within SES groups. The apparent simplicity and buzz of the phrase “30 million word gap” misses the complexity of the association. 

Subsequent studies have called to question the cultural deficit view drawn from Hart and Risley’s work.  We share several of those studies and reports here so that you might gain a more fully informed understanding of the issue.

Hart, B. and Risley. T. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator, 27(1), 4 – 9.

Dudley-Marling, C.  (2007).  Return of the deficit.  Journal of Educational Controversy.  2(1), Article 5.

Fernald, A. and Weisleder, A. (2015). Twenty years after Meaningful Differences, it’s time to reframe the  ‘deficit’ debate about the importance of children’s early language experience. Human Development58(x), 1 – 4.

Hirsch-Pasek, K., Adamson, L., Bakerman, R., Owen, M., Golinkoff, R., Pace, A., Yust, P., and  Suma, K. The contribution of early communication quality to low-income children’s language success. Psychological Science, 26(7), 1 – 13.

Ramirez-Esparza, N., Garcia-Sierra, A., and Kuhl, P. Look who’s talking: Speech style and social context in language input to infants are linked to concurrent and future speech development. Developmental Science.  17(6), 880-891.