Language Gap Study Shows Vocabulary Differences by the Age of 18 Months

Language Gap Study Shows Vocabulary Differences by the Age of 18 Months

Motoko Rich wrote for the NY Times on October 21, 2013 about the differences in vocabulary development in young children from low- and high-income families and the effects this has on their later reading and academic performance.  In the article, Rich reminds us of the landmark study done two decades ago by Hart and Risley (1995) which “found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than loss of less educated parents, giving them a distinct advantage in school and suggesting the need for increased investment in prekindergarten programs.” But, he goes on to inform us about a follow-up study which has “found a language gap as early as 18 months, heightening the policy debate.”

According to Rich:

The new research by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, which was published in Developmental Science this year, showed that at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes.


The new findings, although based on a small sample, reinforced the earlier research showing that because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households, early literacy experts, preschool directors and pediatricians said. In the new study, the children of affluent households came from communities where the median income was $69,000; the low-income children came from communities with a median income of $23,900.


Since oral language and vocabulary are so connected to reading comprehension, the most disadvantaged children face increased challenges once they enter school and start learning to read.

Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocate of early education for low-income children, says, “The gap just gets bigger and bigger” and “the gap is very real and very hard to undo.”

Richard Laine, director of education for the National Governors Association, says “A lot of states are saying, ‘Let’s get to the early care providers and get more of them having kids come into kindergarten ready” versus having so many kids in remediation programs later in their school careers.  Rich tells us that, in Kentucky, the governor’s Office of Early Childhood started a social media campaign last year that offers simple tips for parents like “Talk about the weather with your child. Is it sunny or cloudy? Hot or cold?”  He also informs readers that although “middle class and more-affluent parents have long known that describing fruit at the supermarket or pointing out the shape of a stop sign are all part of a young child’s literacy education,” that even parents in low-income families can be found speaking more to their children frequently.

Adriana Weisleder, a graduate student in psychology working with Ms. Fernald at Stanford, recorded all the words that 29 children from low-income households heard over a day. Researchers “differentiated between words overheard from television and adult conversations and those directed at the children. They found that some of the children, who were 19 months at the time, heard as few as 670 “child-directed” words in one day, compared with others in the group who heard as many as 12,000.” Results indicated that “those who had heard more words were able to understand words more quickly and had larger vocabularies by age 2.”  Ms. Weisleder had this to say:

Even in families that are low income and perhaps don’t have a lot of education, there are some parents that are very engaged verbally with their kids. And those kids are doing better in language development.

Readers can click on a link from Rich’s article titled “Multimedia” in order to see a video regarding how researchers tracked the vocabulary gap of children at 18, 24 and 30 months of age.  The proof is there in the video to encourage us to address the vocabulary development of children long before they enter Pre-K or kindergarten. Infants and toddlers demonstrate a difference in ability to learn new words at much younger ages than previously thought, so we should be tackling the problem when it occurs versus waiting two or three years to do so.



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