Word Gap


Not every child is exposed to a rich language environment.

Children from low-income families hear approximately 600 words every hour, whereas children from higher-income families hear approximately 2,000 words an hour. This 30 million word gap leads to dramatic differences in vocabularies of 18 month old children, which increase significantly between 18 months and 24 months. 

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  • Children from impoverished environments may experience pronounced disparities in cognition, academic performance, IQ and school readiness early on that persist throughout the child’s lifetime. This inequality may be attributable to a large disparity in children’s early-language environments.

  • Children from low-income families hear approximately 600 words every hour, whereas children from higher-income families hear 2,000 words an hour. Throughout the course of three years, this accumulates into a 30 million word gap between low income children and children from higher-income families. This 30 million word gap contributes to the stark disparities in academic performance and is influenced by a generational lack of access to education and language nutrition.

  • Differences in early language environments lead to dramatic differences in vocabularies of 18 month-old children, which increase significantly between 18 months and 24 months. 

  • Children who have heard fewer words since birth, are likely to know fewer words and have a less diverse vocabulary by age three.

  • Children who are ill-prepared to start school are often unable to catch up, and thus, the achievement gap widens. Educational researcher Gloria Landson-Billings suggests that the achievement gap leads to an “educational debt” (analogous to the concept of a “national debt”), at the core of which is a generational lack of access to quality education. This “educational debt” becomes a cyclical process that brings socioeconomic co-morbidities such as illiteracy, under- or unemployment, health and behavioral issues and poverty.

Bridging the Word Gap

The relationship between socioeconomic status and the word gap may be mediated by parents’ knowledge of child development. Knowledge about child development and how to support it seems to predict the frequency and quality of a parent’s communication with her child more than income or level of parent education. Therefore, efforts must be made to bridge the 30 million word gap, narrow the achievement gap and foster educational success for all children, regardless of the family’s socioeconomic status. TWMB aims to help build that bridge.

Talk With Me Baby is made possible by a grant from the United Way of Atlanta and is a collaborative effort among organizations.