The 30 Million and 1 Million Word Gaps, and What They Mean for Us

The 30 Million Word Gap

When hearing the number for the first time, it’s impossible not to do a double-take. Thirty million is a number that is barely comprehensible, and to try to fathom a set of 30 million words is definitely impossible. Most sophisticated English speakers probably don’t even realize they know so many words.

However, 30 million words is indeed the number that researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley suggested separate the vocabularies of preschool children from “welfare class” families and “professional class” families. Their study, based in Kansas City, Kansas in 1992, has been cited over 8,000 times.

Over time, however, other researchers have poked holes in Hart and Risley’s findings, questioning the small sample size of 42 families and some underlying assumptions in their methodology, among other problems, described clearly and simply in this NPR article.

Were the dramatic conclusions of Hart and Risley accurate and valid? While that is a question for researchers to debate, the resultant interventions that were spearheaded to combat this issue, no matter the true magnitude, were laudable.

The 1 Million Word Gap

The one million word gap is a recent finding from researchers at Ohio State University regarding differences among five year-olds whose parents read various amounts to them. The 2019 study assessed that five year-old children whose parents read them five age-appropriate books per day enter kindergarten having heard 1.4 million more words than children whose parents never read to them.

According to Ohio State University, this is how the research was conducted:

“Logan and her colleagues randomly selected 30 books from both lists and counted how many words were in each book. They found that board books contained an average of 140 words, while picture books contained an average of 228 words.

With that information, the researchers calculated how many words a child would hear from birth through his or her 5th birthday at different levels of reading. They assumed that kids would be read board books through their 3rd birthday, and picture books the next two years, and that every reading session (except for one category) would include one book.

They also assumed that parents who reported never reading to their kids actually read one book to their children every other month.”

Jessica Logan, who headed the study, commented that the figure in her belief is somewhat conservative, as extra-textual discussion with parents would likely increase the potential disparity.

What These Studies Mean for Parents

So, what do these studies mean for us as parents and educators? Should we make sure to read our young children five books a day, or make sure to sit them down regularly for long conversations?

While that might be best in an ideal world, many times we’re forced to come up with backup plans and alternate arrangements that won’t allow us to meet these quotas. Nonetheless, the principle is still valid: the more conversations we have with our children, and the more books we expose them to, the more words with which they will emerge, which will help prepare them to become readers themselves. Even if we can’t manage five books a day, the more we read, or whatever we can do to expose our children to more words, the better.

Published by M. L. Shochet

Author, Teacher and Devoted Father

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