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Beyond the “Word Gap”

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Why Early Experiences Matter

What factors influence a child’s language development?

The seminal research that sought to answer this question was the Hart and Risley study (1995) which embarked on taping and transcribing the words spoke to—and around—children in 42 families, resulting in 2 ½ years of data from monthly one-hour observations. Hart and Risley’s research effort began when babies were 7-9 months old and continued until children were three years of age. Though the researchers acknowledge that all families nurtured their children and all children learned to talk and mastered the basic skills necessary for preschool entry, an analysis of the data found that children’s vocabularies at age three varied significantly and correlated with their families’ income levels—that is, children with the smallest vocabularies were members of families with the lowest incomes and vice versa. These differences in vocabulary were ascribed to vastly different language environments in their first three years of life in terms of: number of words spoken to and around the child; richness of language used in the home; use of questions and conversations with children; and other factors. The “Word Gap” has come to symbolize the inequities between very young children who have rich opportunities for positive early learning experiences and those who do not.

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