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More Than Word Gap Drives Differences in Children’s Language Learning

Thirty million: In the world of early-childhood education that number represents the supposed gap between middle- and low-income children in the number of words heard by the time they are three years old.

The original study that generated that 30 million number is now 20 years old. The number has frequently been used to explain some children’s more limited vocabulary and the academic disadvantage they face because of it.

According to Education Week, subsequent studies have shown that the word gap is really smaller, perhaps closer to 11 million words, and that the entire language acquisition landscape is really more complicated than many summaries of the original study would suggest.

For example,

‘Conversational turns are vastly more important than the number of words a child is exposed to,’ Ms. Gilkerson [the LENA Research Foundation’s director of child-language research] said.

In one recent study, Ms. Gilkerson and her colleagues found parents of children who scored in the top 10 percent on preschool language tests had conversations with their children that involved 18 more turns taken per hour than parents of children scoring in the bottom 80 percent.

‘When you’re getting more directive, business talk, the short directive sentences don’t elicit this back and forth,’ Ms. Gilkerson said. That finding could explain, in part, why more total words are associated with better language skills for children. ‘We do know as the number of words increases,’ Ms. Gilkerson said, ‘so does the richness, the syntactic complexity, the content.’

Read the entire Education Week article.

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