Vocabulary: Key Is Quality of Conversation, Not Number of Words

A seminal study on the early word gap between the children of college graduates and high school dropouts has led to more nuanced findings about language development.

Source: www.edweek.org

  • The researchers found that, on average, children from professional families heard more than 2,150 words an hour. Those in working-class families heard about 1,250 words. Children in families on welfare heard little more than 600 words an hour.
  • “It’s not just the word gap; it’s what you use language for,” said Barbara T. Bowman, a child-development professor and co-founder of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute.
  • Children of professionals also heard twice as many unique words, and twice as many “encouraging” versus “discouraging” conversations (“What did you think of that?” versus “Don’t touch that,” for example.)By the end of the study, more than 85 percent of the vocabulary, conversational patterns, and language complexity of the 3-year-olds had come from their families, and children of professionals had vocabularies more than twice as large as peers in families receiving welfare.
  • children with an “enriched language environment” hear about 20,000 words a day—22 million words by age 3—while disadvantaged children hear half as many or fewer.
  • But if recent studies shrunk the word gap from the Hart and Risley study, they also magnified the importance of parent-child conversations.
  • “Conversational turns are vastly more important than the number of words a child is exposed to,” Ms. Gilkerson said.
Note to teachers: Purposeful classroom discussion is critical to acquisition of vocabulary.

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