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Mind the Gap

In June of 2014, Barack Obama was featured in a YouTube video for the #CloseTheWordGap campaign in which he explained that “during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family.” He went on to state that bridging the “Word Gap” would improve national educational equity. Obama closed by thanking the “growing coalition of researchers, nonprofits and foundations” dedicated to this end. One such organization is the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative, which launched the #CloseTheWordGap campaign: Hillary Clinton has her own video on the Word Gap. Since its inception decades ago, the mythic word gap has only gained prominence, reaching the highest office in the land, despite resting on dubious science and licensing racist victim-blaming.

How did we get to the point where the country’s political leaders attribute educational inequity to numbers of words spoken to a child before they turn three? The story begins with the University of Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who in 1995 published Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. In the book, Hart and Risley disclosed the results of an investigation over two years of Kansas City families, finding, “In four years, an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words.” 

Despite the intervening decades and deaths of both authors, Meaningful Differences has continued to wield an outsized influence on the contemporary discourse surrounding the Word Gap, racking up over 8000 citations. Contemporary organizations dedicated to the topic cite Hart and Risley in their publicity materials. In addition to Too Small to Fail, these organizations include the University of Chicago program Thirty Million Words and Providence Talks, both of which have received multimillion-dollar grants.

These organizations are funded on the premise that closing the word gap will improve educational equity. However, they consistently fail to reveal the methodological flaws that undermine Hart and Risley’s seminal research. One such flaw is its restricted sample size of just 42 families: 13 upper socioeconomic status (SES) families, the majority of whom were white, and six families on welfare, all of whom were Black. This selection cannot do justice to the wide variety of interaction patterns within the socioeconomic status. For example, the child who boasted the largest vocabulary in the study was raised in a low-socioeconomic status household. The study also failed to take into account regional variation. In 2018, Sperry et al. published a “failed replication” of Hart and Risley’s study, which raised the “possibility that variation across communities within a particular social class is so great that it swamps variation across classes.” For example, low-income children in Alabama’s historically poor “Black Belt” hear three times as many words as those in Hart and Risley’s “welfare” families. The Sperry team has faced some criticism for its own methodological issues, including a limited sample, but has responded that their sample was sufficient to cast doubt on Meaningful Differences.

Another flashpoint in this debate is that Hart and Risley only measured words spoken directly by parents, excluding the rich discourse that surrounds children in their early years. The relative importance of direct communication in language development is a point of genuine contention for developmental psychologists, but linguistic anthropologists point out that “addressing the youngest children as conversational partners is extremely unusual in the world.” This is why Sperry’s team noted, “In societies in which young children are seldom spoken to, they nonetheless reach major milestones of language development at ages comparable to those of Western children.” When researchers accounted for words in children’s’ ambient environments, they found that some poor and working class children heard more words than their wealthier counterparts.

Hart and Risley also fell into a classic observer’s paradox. They collected their data in monthly hour-long sittings. It is not far-fetched to imagine that the imposition of white academics in the home had a chilling effect on low-income parents of color, yet simultaneously encouraged white professional parents to speak up to impress their guests. Hart and Risley claimed to solve for this bias by beginning their recordings when the children were only 7-9 months old to allow families time to adapt to their presence. However, when Gilkerson et al. employed digital recording technology, they concluded that the real word gap only approximates 4 million words by age four. Using Hart and Risley’s numbers, this amounts to low-income children hearing less than 10% fewer words than their higher-income peers.

Hart and Risley never measured educational outcomes. Instead, they measured vocabulary size and administered an IQ test, which Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould had already denounced in 1981 as a “racially divisive cultural construct.” Professor Sarah Michaels of Clark University accuses, “Hart and Risley coded for upper-middle class/academic or professional politeness and interactional patterns, found that the upper-income families used more of them, and simply asserted that more of the quality features are better in producing learning-related outcomes.“ 

Even if it had rested on sound science, the idea of the word gap compounded barriers for the most vulnerable students. Linguists agree that children on both sides of the “gap” effectively acquire their languages. Differences in ways of speaking only become a “gap” upon exposure to a biased educational system that deems upper-class white communication “standard” and tells marginalized students their complex communication skills don’t belong in the classroom. 

The Word Gap places responsibility for the educational challenges of poor children of color not on the educational system, but on poor parents of color. That’s why Obama’s video explicitly targets “helping parents get the tools they need.” This type of victim-blaming contributes to a long history of criticizing parents of color for perceived negligence that dates back to the infamous Moynihan Report and earlier. This is the same narrative that justifies organizations like Providence Talks intruding into homes for “coaching visits,” in which a representative reviews a report with data from a “word pedometer” and rewards parents with stars for meeting progress benchmarks.

Ascribing systemic educational inequity to the Word Gap also simply misallocates resources. There is only so much funding, energy, and political capital available for improving equity, and there simply is not sufficient evidence to warrant the attention the Word Gap has received. Following a body of decisions to expand educational equity such as Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “language became a proxy for race,” write García and Otheguy. “It was no longer acceptable to denigrate Blacks directly, but aspects of language could be used to exclude them, as well as to exclude others considered non-Whites . . . the language gap blames African American and Latino families for the racism that persists in U.S. society.” The millions of dollars invested in the Word Gap would have been better spent on addressing systemic barriers within the school system, including high-quality preschools, improved teacher training, and opportunities for advanced classes.

Photo: Image via Adobe Stock