These Findings About Children’s Vocabulary Will Surprise You

One of the most intriguing articles I have read about children’s vocabulary is The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 (Hart & Risley, 2003). Hart and Risley (2003) endeavored to answer the question, “Could we, or parents, predict how a child would do in school from what the parent was doing when the child was 2 years old?” (p. 8). They conducted a study of 42 families with diverse economic backgrounds including lower, middle and upper-class families (Hart & Risley, 2003). In this study, they answered the question so many parents wonder, “Do the conversations in the home have an effect on your little one?”

After observing family interactions in the home, from the time a child was an infant to three years old, this is what they discovered, “In four years of such experience, an average child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family would have accumulated experience with 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family would have accumulated experience with 13 million words” (Hart & Risley, 2003, p. 8). That means the average disparity between a four-year-old child’s vocabulary from a wealthy family compared to a child from a family with low economic status is 32 million words. It was noted that all families in this study made an effort to nurture, play with, and discipline their children.

children's vocabulary

You may be wondering how you can help to improve your child’s vocabulary, and lessen the gap. Here are four tips for parents:

1. Parent-child communication is important from the time a child is an infant.

Talk to your baby, even before you think they can understand. Tell them what you are doing. Describe the process you are completing. Identify objects. Explain out loud what you are thinking. All of these early language experiences add up.

2. The amount of time spent and the quality of words used while talking to your child matters.

It is ok to use words that children can easily understand, but you also want to use your normal vocabulary when you speak around your child. One way I accomplish this is to tell my daughter in a way that she understands and then say “another way to say that is…”

Four proven ways to improve your child's vocabulary. > Click To Tweet

3. Parents should work to give more compliments than discouragements to your child.

It breaks my heart to hear this statistic that “…an average child in a welfare family would have accumulated 125,000 more instances of prohibitions than encouragements” (Hart & Risley, 2003, p.9). The power of an encouraging word is far beyond what we even understand. Every child is good at something. As parents, we can find those things our children excel at and praise them for it.

4. Children ARE listening to what you say.

Children are incredibly observant. They are like little sponges. They are listening to what you say, even when you think they aren’t. So, I challenge parents everywhere (including myself) to make those words count!

Hart, B. & Risley, T.R., (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator, 4-9.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Empower Your Child With These 7 Simple Parenting Tips.