How Many Words Does Your Child Need?

Amidst a growing emphasis on the centrality of language and writing comes this article from last week about an invisible problem: the “poverty of words.” It describes a rarely mentioned phenomenon: that children in more affluent households tend to hear more words per day than less fortunate kids. The reason is simple: Educated and involved parents often teach new vocabulary instinctively, while less involved parents do not.

The children of these poorer families may suffer greatly as a result, with far-reaching consequences that can affect test taking and future prospects. This vocabulary gap can become crippling over many months and years:

As it happens, in the ’80s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups, and what they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in sheer number. Children of professionals were, on average, exposed to approximately 1,500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty. This resulted in a gap of more than 32 million words by the time the children reached the age of 4.

It is an extraordinary number, and one which several educators echo in the article. And it points to the incredible power of exposure: kids are sponges, and they excel when they are given access to the fullest possible world of words and ideas.

Parents who read, who teach, and who spend time talking with their kids may be giving them more than a strong emotional foundation. They may also be giving their kids the gift of language, and all the riches that come with it.