Language Differences that Matter a Lot

When people discuss the disparities in opportunity among socio-economic groups, the research done by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the 80’s and 90’s often comes up (Hart & Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, 1995). These researchers carefully studied poor children and school success. In order to do this they looked at the family lives of children prior to preschool. Todd Risley explains that

“children are awake (and able to learn) about 100 to 110 hours in every week of life, they would have already used up over 15,000 hours of learning opportunity time by age three. We wanted to know how full or empty of learning experience were those hours of opportunity—and to compare the lives of babies from the poorest families with the lives of babies from working-class and professional families.” (Risley & Hart, 2006)

We all know the importance of those early experiences, but sometimes forget how precious those 15,000 hours are and how quickly that time can escape a busy parent. Growing Great Kids curriculum materials are designed specifically to support parents in making the most of each of these opportunities. By practicing the Daily Do’s dozens of times each day, they will be supporting their child’s optimum development.

The findings from the research of Hart and Risely are immense and can be read in their entirety in their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Hart & Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, 1995). Many of the findings in regard to language are extremely important to the work of Family Support workers and are the basis for the Prenatal to 36 month Growing Great Kids Daily Do: Play by Play and the Preschool Growing Great Kids Daily Do: Talk it Up.

One of the most critical findings was that there are consistently very large differences between families and the amount of time, encouragement, and talk their children are exposed to. (Hart & Risley, The early catasrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3, 2003) Some parents spend as much as 40 minutes out of each hour interacting with their babies, and others spend as little as 15 minutes out of each hour. Some parents encouraged or expressed approval to their babies 40 times in an hour, while others it was less than 4 times an hour. Some parents spoke over 3000 words compared to others who said fewer than 200 words in an average hour. (Risley & Hart, 2006) It’s important to note that these differences were consistent across time for each family so the different early exposure to language for each baby really adds up. By the time these children started preschool, the number of words their parents had spoken to them were hugely different, 33 million in some families compared to only 10 million in other families. Some children, by the age of three would have already heard over 500,000 positive statements about their actions and other children less than 60,000 affirmative statements.

Another important research finding was that “extra” talk is automatically both more positive and more complex. (Risley & Hart, 2006) All parents of young children were found to use similar numbers of basic “business” talk. This includes things like “stop that”, “hold still”, “come here”, and “put that down.” That part wasn’t so surprising, but what was interesting was that they found that whenever parents talked more than necessary for just taking care of business…it was more conversational and the running commentary was automatically “more rich in the varied vocabulary, complex ideas, subtle guidance, and positive reinforcement that are thought to be important to intellectual development.” (Risley & Hart, 2006)

In order to support your families as they work to ensure that their children compare most favorably, giving them a method or strategy to achieve these kinds of differences is critical. This is where Play by Play and Talk it Up fit into the puzzle. Inspiring parents to practice these methods of supporting their child’s language development many times each day, is where the family support worker fits into the mix. Helping parents see into their child’s future is an important first step. Making connections to what they want for their child helps connect the important dots. Walking them through the pay-offs for the Daily Do’s reminds them why they want to do this important work. Todd Risley explains it best when he says,

“Whenever a parent simply talks more, or can be induced to talk more, most of the extra talk has to be descriptive and conversational. As commentary and conversation increase, business talk will stay constant and the parent’s ratio or ‘parenting style’ will automatically improve.” (Risley & Hart, 2006)

The hardest part of Play by Play for parents of young infants is often getting past the idea that since the baby doesn’t talk…the caregivers don’t really need to talk to them. Help parents understand that the research indicates a very clear link between receptive language experiences in those early months and years and expressive language practice. Children of the most talkative families express themselves over 600 times an hour by age three, compared to the children of the least talkative families studied who by age three were only expressing themselves less than 200 times an hour. (Risley & Hart, 2006) By the time they start preschool, children whose families talked the most to them exhibit three times the expressive language of those who don’t. These kinds of language differences have been directly linked to intellectual outcomes and accomplishments. (Hart & Risley, 1999)

Parents from advantaged backgrounds tend to pass on a pattern of language achievement that will be repeated for generations to come, but in many of the family subcultures in our work, those first 15,000 hours of the baby’s life is lacking the kind of child-directed language interactions that really make a difference. In order to change this, we must “focus on teaching parents how to capitalize on those waking moments of their babies lives with activities and conversation hour after hour, day after day, month after month from the very beginning.” (Risley & Hart, 2006)




Works Cited

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

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1999). The Social World of Children Learning to Talk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookings Publishing Co.

Risley, T. R., & Hart, B. (2006). Promoting early language development. In N. F. Watt, C. Ayoub, R. H. Bradley, J. Puma, & W. A. LeBoeuf, The crisis in youth mental health: Critical issues and effective programs, Volume 4, Early intervention programs and policies. (pp. 83-88). Westport, CT: Praeger.

As always, feel free to email any topic suggestions or questions to . Be sure to add Great Vine ideas to the subject line of the email.


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