It’s not often that educational research becomes part of the public discussion, but the 1992 Hart & Risley study did just that.

You surely heard about it: News reports focused on the dramatic differences they found in the amount of words children heard in the early years, depending upon their family settings. More specifically, the researchers found a 30 million word gap between how much language children from “welfare families” were exposed to by the age of 3, versus the language exposure young children from “professional families” had in their homes. That large number got people’s attention — and had huge policy implications over the years.

But was the study accurate? 

  • Since then, there has been a lot of debate over whether their study design (i.e., with only 42 families, vocabulary growth determined from small samples of speech, a white researcher whose presence might have made non-white children less likely to talk) made for a misleading outcome that showed and created a cultural bias.
  • Results from a much larger study done in 2017, with 8x as many children organized by “low-income” and high-income” groups, found that the word gap is surely closer to 4 million words by the time children turned 4, not 30 million words by the time children are 3 years old.
  • Other studies have been done to show that the real issue is word type, not word quantity. In other words, it isn’t just how many words children hear, it’s the kinds of words that they hear that could make a real difference in young children’s vocabulary growth. But then again, Hart & Risley believed that more talk most often leads to higher quality talk.

A recent article describes the debate more thoroughly for those who are interested.

But the real question is: what should parents take away from all the studies of language done by – and since – Hart & Risley’s research in 1992?

  • It’s that direct conversation with children is foundational to language growth and later success in school.
  • And when parents and caregivers go beyond the “business talk” of life that Risley described (“listen to me,” “find your shoes,” “put that down”), that’s when the elaborative, higher-quality language – with diverse vocabulary and complex ideas — begins.