Hart and Risley introduced the staggering “30-million-word gap” between children of different households, back in 1995. Some may call it a famous study while others may call it an infamous study. This is because it has caused quite a stir directly and indirectly; the proposed solutions tended to sprout problems of their own. In their study, Hart and Risley followed parent-child language usage (listening/speaking opportunities) in a range of different contexts. The children in the most socially disadvantaged group produced only half the number of words that the children of the “professional” families did. Hart and Risley also noted that vocabulary size is a major predictor in future scholastic success and that the vocabulary size gap among young children quickly widens from a 2:1 ratio to a 4:1 ratio in a matter of months.
What was the cause of these tremendous gaps in vocabulary from such a young age? The gist can be found here. The researchers realized that the significant predictor of this phenomenon was the amount of time the parents spent interacting with their children. Moreover, not only did the disadvantaged group’s children have less interaction with their parents, but even when they were interacting (such as during chores, etc.) there was less talk during that time—fewer words were being vocalized per hour. And so, by the age of four, there is a 30-million-word gap between the number of words heard by the children in the professional homes vs the disadvantaged homes.
The obvious quick fix is to have parents talk more with their children, right? Wrong—according to Dr. Catherine Snow (former Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education). This article is my take on her brilliant insights and the proposals that she put forth in a course on this topic that I had the opportunity to attend a couple of years ago. As such, all the following quotes from Snow are from her online course. She was provocative—these quotes are provided to give you a sense of how she worded her message.
In her online course, Dr. Snow argued that telling parents to talk more would be “missing the mark” and that it was not quite the solution that it seems to be. Why is that? Well, it’s primarily because parents are not sure what they should be talking about with their children. And so, they need guidance in this area. Moreover, Snow suggests that a keen focus on the gap of “30 million words” was counterproductive and that this issue should not be seen as a gap in heard vocabulary per se, but a gap in “access to knowledge.” What does she mean by that? An example would be a family gathering at the dinner table. In the professional group’s homes, the children were commonly more engaged in conversations that allowed them to acquire content along with new vocabulary—the family asks mom… about her day, why police sirens are so loud, why steak is popular, where bananas grow, etc. These were typical daily conversations in some of the households—but were non-existent in many of the lower income households. Some adults may dismiss these conversations that are seemingly “talking about nothing” as a waste of time and energy, especially from the adult’s perspective. However, Snow argues that these questions are the key to accessing new words and new concepts in a timely fashion; the children gain concrete developmental foundations through this daily exchange, even when it may just seem like playful banter.
According to Snow, parents of young children are often given the advice, “speak more to your children—use more words,” but the better advice would be “find interesting things to talk about, and make sure that they get talked about in ways that engage children in those conversations.”
The first two years of life…
Snow pointed to a number of important distinctions that seem to be easily glossed over if they are not explicitly reinforced in the minds of parents and teachers. That is—of course talking to the little toddlers is imperative, but there is a subtle difference between talking at the child and engaging with them. Because children create pre-language proto-conversations which are amusing but nonsensical to adults, it is common for adults to sort of force “correct” language usage on them at the time; this may be especially true of teachers. Why? One likely reason is that the babbling is often not an actual attempt at communication from the child. Snow puts it this way:
So, engaging with children during the pre-language stage should not be essentially focused on portraying correct language usage from the teacher’s perspective, but more on prepping the child for active social behavior. According to Snow, mimicking the child’s babbling and gestures provides validity and it helps nurture curiosity to pursue further engagement with the teacher. This appears to be a crucial stage that can easily be overlooked by even the most attentive teachers—if they don’t know what to look for beforehand. Essentially, teachers should observe the children and note what they show interest in. Then, engage with the children from that perspective (not the adult’s perspective) in ways that support further curiosity—which will in turn help facilitate language development. This may seem counterintuitive. And it is the opposite of what some teachers naturally tend to do when they are with little ones. On this point, Snow’s words gave me a lot to think about.
When the questions begin…
A monograph by Michelle Chouinard and colleagues talks of the frequency and intensity of young children’s questions. She analyzed transcripts from five different children (ages 18 months to five years). In her study, the least talkative child asked 50 questions per hour(!) while the most talkative child asked 150 questions per hour. Extended, that comes to 220,000 to 660,000 questions by the age of four. According to Snow, adults are incorrect in assuming that most of the questions were not important; 60%-80% of the questions asked during this crucial developmental period were “truly information-seeking questions.” The children were asking for explanations, what words mean, and why things happen the way they do. A staggering 90% of the unanswered questions come back again, so this tells us two things: (1) the children are listening to the answers [even if they may not appear to be], and (2) it makes sense to answer these questions as they come up because they will resurface if the reply is not satisfactory.
From the developmental perspective, responding to questions in a timely fashion provides well-timed linguistic input as well as real-world knowledge. It also continues to nurture curiosity instead of dampening it. As Snow puts it, “…children who are curious will drive their own learning throughout the rest of their lives.” And so, responding to a question with a shrug (killing the curiosity) is not in the same ballpark as responding with, “Well, I don’t know the answer but how about we look it up to find out? Want to do that? Let’s go find that answer!” The former does not help foster the skills and attitudes that we most want to nurture in children at that age. The latter models the skills and attitudes that we do want to nurture in them.
What should adults ask?
Adults can also (and should also) ask questions. When possible, it is typically better to focus your time on open-ended questions. For example, you may want to start with a yes/no question as the primer and then spend the bulk of the time exploring thoughts with open-ended questions—Do you like watching the cars? What do you find interesting about them? I see. Why do you think this is…? According to Snow, these open-ended questions can generate an entire and rich conversation whereas a yes/no question is a lost opportunity unless it is followed by a more engaging pathway question.
It is intuitive for adults to see books as a repository of information, and so children should just open them up and read. Yes, this is one way that obviously works—but is it the optimal way? In Kurt Fischer’s work with Dynamic Skill Theory (1980) [this is a great video with Kurt explaining it], there is an important distinction between low support contexts and high support contexts. A child just attempting to read a book alone is of course an example of a low support context for reading—it is just enough to get by. But if there is an adult who is there to create a thoroughly engaging dialogue around the book’s content in real time, it produces a high-support context that vastly enriches the experience for the child (click here for a brief reading on how this works). Moreover, even just a display of enthusiasm for the book can make a life-long impact on a child. “Favorite” books are born in this way. Snow advocates eliciting responses to open-ended questions while reading with a child; having them explore concepts in real time is what makes the dialogic approach optimal. It is also a great opportunity for the child to learn about talking about books—this is especially so regarding books that they have already enjoyed reading (dialogically) several times in the past.
Adults can be the great facilitators of dialogic reading. However, children’s input should not be quickly rejected or automatically discounted in favor of the adult’s choices. If nurtured well, children can generate great questions about their reading, too. That would mean the adults can “work forward” from the interests that are on display. According to Snow, if you observe a classroom—even a diverse—you can eventually clump major questions into categories, and let these categories of questions inform and lead the teaching. This has the potential to be immensely satisfying for the children—especially if the most commonly raised questions are tackled.
What about the more mature children?
It would be normal for a teacher to try to teach reading comprehension through reading, right? Well, Snow makes a fascinating case against reading for this purpose. According to Snow, children learn the most pertinent skills for critical reading comprehension through talking, not reading: “The best place to acquire those skills is in oral discussion, is in oral interactions, with their peers and with their teachers.”
Her argument makes sense when you consider the skills that are required: skills in academic language, perspective taking, understanding complex arguments, making complex arguments, and building relevant content knowledge. It would seem the bulk of that can be learned more deeply and effectively though engaging classroom dialogue than reading about it. But does classroom discussion work to build deep reading comprehension skills?
And so, although having debates and other engaging classroom dialogues may seem far from critical reading, it may be the most efficient way to go about this.
Summary and logical extensions
- The 30-million-word gap is not really about a gap in vocabulary, but a gap in information accessibility.
- Parents often don’t know what to talk about with their children. They need guidance.
- Kids have interests. If we take note of those interests, we can explore the answers together. We should do this when possible.
- If we design classes around student interests, we will likely have more engagement with students and we will be able to model good learning because of this optimized learning context. This helps ensure that what we teach is usable in the future in some capacity.
- Dialogic reading is optimized learning.
- Children model their learning attempts on what they see from adults. Adults should show curiosity in learning.
- When children’s interests are squashed by little or no useful communication, further motivation to pursue the area may dwindle. This is inefficient.
- We should provide optimized learning experiences by allowing children to have meaningful talking time. While it may seem counterproductive, for the brain, engaging in dialogues regarding learning is often the most efficient path to deeper learning.
Parents and teachers may be doing their best, but the results of their best can result in staggering differences down the road. Snow gave me much to think about. The above list is deeper than it may seem at first glance. Moreover, she has a way of providing “upside down” solutions. She said the obvious solution of “talk more” to reduce the gap is unsatisfactory. She said not to read more to improve critical reading skills—spend more time having critical discussions instead. Want your kids to be smarter? Talk more about “nothing” at the dinner table—and make sure you explore it together. Ask more about “nothing” in the classroom—and be sure to explore it together. Engagement via co-creation and co-exploration will be the magic key that provides access to vital knowledge today and vital knowledge in children’s futures—and this is what really makes the difference in their lives.
Chouinard, M., Harris, P., & Maratsos, M. (2007). Children’s questions: A mechanism for cognitive development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 72(1), 1-129. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30163594
Fischer, K. W. (1980). A theory of cognitive development: The control and construction of hierarchies of skills. Psychological Review, 87, 477-531.
Snow, C. (2021). Learning to talk by talking: A developmental approach to maximizing language and literacy skills. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/program/learning-talk-talking-developmental-approach-maximizing-language-and-literacy-skills
Robert S. Murphy (PhD) Associate Professor, University of Kitakyushu. Japanese-American with most of his life spent in Japan teaching English and sciences. Mentored by Dr. Kurt Fischer at Harvard and a leading voice in the “Mind, Brain, and Education” movement in Asia.