How Words Change Children’s Lives

Source:  The Guardian, Alamy

Source: The Guardian, Alamy


“[A] child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family.  This gap does nothing but grow as the years progress, ensuring slow growth for children who are economically disadvantaged and accelerated growth for those from more privileged backgrounds.”

This is shocking, but what is more shocking is that these well-respected study* findings were first published in 1992.  A full 20 years later this data is being shared and quoted  broadly, but the facts remain the same.  And this was not their only amazing finding.  As important was what they learned about the kind of words that children hear:

“by age four, the average child from a family on welfare will hear 125,000 more words of discouragement than encouragement. When compared to the 560,000 more words of praise as opposed to discouragement that a child from a high-income family will receive, this disparity is extraordinarily vast.”

There are practical and cultural reasons for these differences.  But no reason is an excuse.

The good news is that these findings represent clear points of huge leverage; if you improve these communication patterns, you improve many other things in the lives of these families too!  There are many possible actions we can take.  Anyone who works with parents or mothers-to-be can do something to improve this situation.

Just sharing those two findings is a great place to start.  Awareness of the problem is always the biggest step toward a solution.  Mothers are all doing what they learned or think is right. Many low-income mothers simply need to hear that talking a lot more to their young children and verbally encouraging them is critical to their success in life.

In future posts we will cover other related initiatives.




*These are the findings of a well-respected study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley of  University of Kansas. They wrote a book also: Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. 

The quotes above are from an article by the Rice School Literacy and Culture Project. Click here to read the full article.

Categories: All Posts, For Social Service Organizations, Relevant Research

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