Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The "Word Gap" is About More than Just Words

There has been a lot of attention in the media lately about the "word gap" between kids in higher and lower income families. Researchers have documented for years that children in families of higher socioeconomic status (SES) are generally exposed to many more words than children from lower SES families. This pattern most likely happens for a variety of reasons including education level of the parents, patterns of parenting passed through generations, and parenting stress. As you might expect, infants and toddlers who are exposed to fewer words tend to know fewer words by the time the reach kindergarten. Some studies have shown that the "word gap" emerges even as early as 18 months old. 

Beyond a disparity in vocabulary, new research is showing that the "word gap" actually has other implications as well. According to scientists, "listening to speech promotes the babies' acquisition of the fundamental cognitive and social psychological capacities that form the foundation for subsequent learning." In other words, listening to human speech actually helps infants understand human interpersonal interaction. Apparently there is something sort of magical about human speech for an infant's ears. Hearing speech, even more than hearing other sounds, helps babies figure out patterns of sounds, who is a possible interaction partner, and how to categorize objects. 

From this insight, we can see even more clearly why the "word gap" between higher and lower SES families is such an important issue. While a gap in vocabulary has been shown to have long-term educational consequences, a gap in the corresponding social interaction may have even more dramatic effects. 

In response to these findings, many legislators have called for the development of universal free (or subsidized) preschool. This is a good start, but the work really even needs to begin before preschool age. Many programs around the country have begun which involve training parents to encourage them to talk to their infants in ways that promote language development and human interaction. These programs are not widespread yet, but we all should support such programs as a way of helping all children start life on an equal standing.  

 Source: Northwestern University. (2015, January 5). Human speech's surprising influence on young infants. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 17, 2015 from

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