How to Raise a Verbal Child: Lexicon Valley on Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s research

How to Raise a Verbal Child: Lexicon Valley on Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s research

The above link takes readers to a podcast posted on June 25th by Mike Vuolo on Slate, a general-interest, daily magazine on the Web offering analysis and commentary about politics, news, business, technology, and culture, readers. The podcast from Lexicon Valley (, a show about the mysteries of the English language, focuses on why talking to your kids is one of the most important investments you can make in their future.  The hosts of Lexicon Valley, Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo, present to listeners the 1995 research from Betty Hart and Todd Risley that makes it clear why talking may be the single most important activity you can do with your child.  That very research was a huge impetus for me to write my Operation Ready By 3 Infant-Toddler Curriculum, which is a language/word-based curriculum, last fall.  

Here is a list of points revealed in Lexicon Valley Episode No. 29:  30 Million By Four, in case you don’t have 28 minutes and 54 seconds of peace and quiet laying around in which to listen:

1)  50 years ago, in 1964, President Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.”  Vuolo tells us in the first year or two of Johnson’s administration a “slew of initiatives were launched as part of this war on poverty,” including Medicare/Medicaid, the Food Stamp Act, Job Corps, and, in the summer of 1965, the Head Start Program.

2)  The idea behind Head Start in 1965 was that low-income kids were starting kindergarten already behind and not as “school-ready” as high-income kids.  Head Start was designed to help disadvantaged kids “catch up” in the skills they were lacking when they arrived to kindergarten.  The idea was that if there was a deficit in these children, that it was simply a matter of teaching them whatever it was they were missing.

3)  Garfield states that 40 years later Head Start “hasn’t really done the job” and that “there are still these huge achievement gaps from underprivileged kids relative to kids with more stable economic backgrounds.”  He asks Vuolo whether or not researchers offer any insight into why the problem continues to be “so intractable.”

4)  Vuolo tells about some research around the time that Head Start began that gets at why the program hasn’t worked as well as we would have hoped.  He goes on to say that Betty Hart and Todd Risley were at the University of Kansas at the time and they identified two preschools in the Kansas City area with very different socio-economic populations:  The Turner House Preschool (in a poor neighborhood and attended by mostly low-income children) and the Laboratory Preschool (at the University of Kansas and attended mostly by professors’ children).  Vuolo explains that Hart and Risley “wondered what was observably different about the kids in these two preschools.”

5)  The research:  Hart and Risley recorded a group of two children from each of the two preschools during a free play once a week over the course of the preschool year.  

The findings, quoted from Hart and Risley’s research:  “In both settings, both sets of children asked questions, made demands and described what they were doing.  The difference was in how much talking went on.  Most of the professors’ children talked at least twice as much as the Turner House children.  They talked about more different aspects of what they were doing, they asked more questions about how things worked, and why.”  And, the rate at which how quickly the Turner House kids incorporated new vocabulary words into their vocabulary growth was “markedly slower than the rate at which the professors’ kids were adding new words.”  They said “projecting the growth curves into the future, we can see an ever-widening gap between the vocabulary resources the Turner House children and the professors’ children would bring to school.”

6)  Researchers confirmed a language deficit in one group compared to the other and they felt confident that they could “catch these disadvantaged kids up.”  So, for the following preschool year, they took the Turner House kids on a series of field trips once a week and held rigorous discussions before and after the trips in an attempt to expand their vocabulary and thinking about the world.  The findings:  The kids were able to use new vocabulary and expand their discussions, but only about the specific experiences they had.  Hart and Risley said they were so sure they would be able to change how kids responded to their world, but they saw that, by age 4, patterns of vocabulary growth were already established and intractable.  They said “we could not accelerate the rate of vocabulary growth beyond direct teaching” and “we could not change the developmental trajectory.”  Vuolo says “by that time, it was too late.”

7)  Garfield is not only heart-broken when he hears Vuolo’s summary of Hart and Risley’s findings, but he is also astonished, since he thought linguists, until now, believe that language acquisition is instinctual, that it just happens, since the mind is pre-disposed to develop language.   Vuolo confirms this.

8)  Vuolo asks Garfield to wait on this thought, but shares that vocabulary use and growth is a good predictor of cognitive functioning down the road.  He says, “In other words, your future problem-solving ability, analytical skills, reading comprehension, memory, language facility…these are the whole panoply of ingredients that comprise what we might call ‘high cognitive functioning, or what we might call ‘just being really smart.'”

9) Garfield asks, “And, if you don’t have the building blocks by the time you are 4, it’s game over?”.  Vuolo responds with “As Hart and Risley discovered and as the Head Start program has discovered time and time again, it’s really difficult to catch kids up once they reach that age. You can’t just take 6 or 8 weeks before kindergarten or first grade and change the whole, future cognitive trajectory of those children.”  He tells us there are outliers, of course, but you just can’t change a child’s trajectory at that point.

10)  Garfield, feeling despondent, asks Vuolo if there is anything that can be done about it, according to Hart and Risley. Vuolo paraphrases Hart and Risley again, saying “The vocabulary growth rates we saw in the preschool kids seemed unalterable, even with intervention, by the time the children were 4 years old.”  This lead the researchers to ask “What’s going on in the several years before kids even get to preschool to account for these differences?” and “What’s happening in the home?”

11) To answer the question regarding what was happening in the home before kids got to preschool, Hart and Risley organized a decade-long research project.  They followed 13 families from the high socio-economic status group (i.e., professionals), 23 families who were middle- to low- socio-economic status (e.g., skilled laborers, working class workers), and 6 who were poor (i.e., on welfare).  All had a child who was 7 or 8 months old at the beginning of the study.  Once a month for the next 2-1/2 years, a trained observer would go to the house and record whatever was happening around that child as well as take notes about what was happening.  They observers paid attention to who was talking, how many adults were around, whether words were directed to an adult or to the child, who was the child talking to (once he or she began talking), and what were they doing while talking.  The more than 1300 hours of observation was transcribed, typed up and analyzed, which took years.

12)  The statistics that came out of the observations included: 

a) The children from the professional families heard, on average, about 2100 words an hour, kids in the working class families heard, on average, 1200 words an hour, and kids in the poor families heard, on average, 600 words an hour. (Researchers noted the sheer number of words and the amount of talking that was going on around the children.  They did not keep track of the number of different words used in an hour.)

b)  If you extrapolate that out to age 4, the poor kids would have heard 30 million fewer words than the upper class kids (Hence the title of Lexicon Valley’s podcast episode.)

c)  At age 3, the kids from the professional families had a vocabulary of 1100 distinct words.  The poor kids had just 500 distinct words.  Vuolo tells us that Hart and Risley thought the differences were so large and so consistent, that they thought there must be some other contributing factor, other than socio-economic level.  They controlled for the sex of the child, for race, and for whether or not both parents were employed, but none of that was statistically significant.  So Hart and Risley wrote, “The family factor most strongly associated with amount of talking was socio-economic status.”

d)  Besides the differences in total amount of speech, researchers identified the quality of the speech used by the adults around the children.  First, there was much greater variety, in particular of nouns, adjectives and adverbs, used among the upper class parents.  Second, the upper class parents speech was much more likely to contain positive feedback (e.g., confirmation, praise, approval) whereas the low socio-economic parents were far more likely to use criticism, disparagements, and admonitions.  Third, upper class parents were much more likely to guide their child toward a certain behavior with a question as opposed to simply telling them to do it.  Fourth, it was much more likely that a professional parent would perpetuate and continue a line of communication initiated by a child than the low socio-economic parents.  These were all statistically significant in the findings.

e) Vuolo paraphrases Hart and Risley: In the professional families, the extraordinary amount of talk, the many different words, the greater richness in nouns and modifiers, suggests a culture concerned with names, relationships and recall, with symbols and analytic problem-solving.  The lower socio-economic families, with the lesser amount of talk, with its more frequent parent-initiated  topics, imperatives and prohibitions, suggested a culture concerned with established customs, with obedience, politeness and conformity.

13) Hart and Risley published their findings in their book titled Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children in 1995.  The big question for Vuolo and Garfield (and myself!) is “Why don’t more of us know about this research?”  Because both Hart and Risley are now both deceased, Vuolo called a woman named Lois Bloom, a retired professor from Columbia University who was doing similar kinds of studies with children and language beginning in the 1960’s. Vuolo said to Bloom “This research is getting some attention from the press, but I wonder, this research is 20 years old, and it’s so compelling and so fascinating, why wasn’t it shouted from every academic rooftop at the time?”

14)  Bloom responds that it was, indeed, shouted from the top of her academic rooftop, but says that “it really cuts to the heart about what academia is really about.”  She goes on to say “It’s a very competitive scene.  Hart and Risley were working in the heartland, in the middle of the country.  They were not at Harvard.  They were not at MIT.  They were not at Pennsylvania.  They were not at Stanford.  They were not in the mainstream, where a lot of the power is wielded in this field. So they weren’t paid attention to.”

15)  Bloom goes on to tell Vuolo about, what she called the ascendancy or “domination of the MIT theory of language,” which says that much of what language is about is innately determined and that kids, in fact, didn’t have to hear a whole lot of language to acquire it.  She says “You had this theory that said it doesn’t really matter very much what parents do. Kids don’t really need all that much input. And, so what Hart and Risley pointed out was that at least for word learning, that’s just simply not true.  The numbers of words really do make a  difference for children.  They really do have to hear all those words.  Now, I think, that eventually began to be acknowledged by the world according to MIT.  But, they just didn’t take it seriously.  They just ignored it.”  She explained it was MIT, Noam Chomsky and all of his descendants who ignored Hart and Risley’s research. 

16)  Garfield describes it as “an intellectual arrogance that perpetuated what is probably a wrong theory of early childhood language acquisition that is affecting disadvantaged kids around the world every day.”  Vuolo confirms that is “pretty much” what Bloom said and that the research has gone unheralded for almost 20 years until fairly recently.  

17)  Vuolo tells listeners that Bloomberg, the financial media company, has a philanthropic arm that issued this year what it called “The Mayor’s Challenge.”  Hundred of mayors from all over the country had to identify a particular problem in their city and a potential solution to the problem in order to participate in the challenge and to compete for grant money.  The mayor of Providence, RI, Angel Taveris, chose to take the research by Hart and Risley and put it to the test, especially since the technology is much more advanced today.  So he turned to the LENA (Language Environment Analysis), which are tiny devices that clip onto a child’s clothing and analyze all of the words in conversations that a child hears or produces.  Mayor Taveris decided to put these devices on low-income kids in Providence, so that parents can see what’s happening for themselves, that observers can see the data, and that then people can intervene at a much earlier age and teach parents how to improve the language environment in their home.

18) Providence and Mayor Taveris won the grand prize of 5 million dollars with this very idea. Vuolo tells listeners that independent academics from Brown University (his alma mater) will evaluate, using a control group, how effective this program is.  He calls the program a sort of “biofeedback for verbal health.”  According to Mayor Taveris, if they can demonstrate a tangible benefit that he’ll want every low-income kid in the city to get one of these LENA devices.


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