Cultural proficiency 101: Reconsidering the 30 million word gap

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Back in the 1980s, Hart & Risley conducted a hallmark study documenting that children from poor communities hear 30 million fewer words than middle class children. This finding has been often cited to document why so many low SES children perform poorly when they enter school and score lower on measures of language and vocabulary.

Sperry et al. brought the results of this study into question, with the idea that the original methodology of the study may have been culturally biased and not applicable to real-life environments. In particular, the original study looked only at directed speech from the primary caregiver (usually the mother) to the child. They did not measure the number of words spoken by other members of the household, speech that the child may have overheard, and they encouraged the family members not to talk to each other so that they could focus on just the mother/child interaction.

While interaction between the primary caregiver is certainly important, Sperry et al. attempted to expand our knowledge of children’s verbal environments by measuring all speech directed to the child and all bystander or “overheard” speech. The findings were quite interesting. There was no significant gap between number of words heard among any social or economic class. Additionally, some working class and poor communities showed an advantage in the number of words the children heard. Additionally, there was significant variation within classes, rather than between classes. For instance, in this study, poor African American families in the south addressed far more words to their children compared to primary caregivers from other low SES communities (e.g. rural, working class).

These results are important to consider as EI therapists working with diverse families. Often times minority families are viewed in a “one size fits all” context, viewing the majority group (middle class American families) as the model. In fact, in many cultures, children are not spoken to directly during the first few years of life, but still reach developmental language milestones similarly to American children. In sum, different cultures have different preferred ways of interacting with their children, which may all have different benefits. As culturally proficient therapists, we need to look at the whole family.

P.S. This article sparked a bit of a debate:

For a response to this article from another group of researchers, click here.

For Sperry et al.’s reply, click here.

And for even more on different qualities of child-directed speech, see Tal & Arnon’s study, where they found the number of variation sets differed between high-SES and low-SES groups. Variation sets happen when an adult focuses on a theme, and then talks a lot about that theme in a series of comments and questions. The authors suggest more information is needed on the different qualities of child-directed speech in order to make predictions about language outcomes.

 

Sperry, D. E., Sperry, L. L., Miller, P.J., (2018). Reexamining the verbal environments of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Child Development. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13072