The “Word Gap”

Author:  Kathleen Mulroy

What is the “Word Gap” and why is it important to children’s education? The word gap was first studied in the U.S. in the early 1990s, when a team of researchers followed about 40 volunteer families – poor, middle class and wealthy – during the first three years of their children’s lives. Every month, the researchers recorded an hour of conversation in each home, then tallied the total number of words spoken. What the researchers discovered was shocking: By the age of three, children born into lower-income families heard roughly 30 million fewer words than did children in more affluent homes. Today, the word gap is wider than ever, and it is negatively impacting American children’s ability to succeed in school and beyond.

In the Lake Pend Oreille School District, about 45 percent of all students start kindergarten already behind literacy benchmarks. And, unfortunately, despite costly remedial intervention for these children, most students who start behind, stay behind throughout their school careers. One of the reasons for this situation is a lack of effective communication in the home, beginning when the child is born. So parents and other primary caregivers must become aware of the importance of talking to – and having real conversations with – their child, especially during the first three years.

One way to increase word-gap awareness is being attempted in Providence, RI, where two-thirds of children enter kindergarten behind in literacy skills. The city recently launched a “word gap awareness” program called “Providence Talks.” Using small recording devices which tuck into a young child’s shirt or pants, the number of words spoken between parent and child, and the number of times a parent and child ask and answer each other’s questions, are recorded. The results are eventually given to parents. One mom says the program has taught her to talk to her young daughter in new and more creative ways; during bath-time, for example, when mother and child talk about and play with differently colored and shaped bath toys.

The 'Word Gap'




Having conversations with your little one should begin at birth.

Researchers and child development experts say parents need to “tune into” what a baby or young child is looking at or is interested in, then talk about it by asking and answering questions. If parents and other caregivers begin this type of back-and-forth talk from the day the child is born, his or her ability to learn to read and write and to understand mathematical concepts will be measurably improved.

The national, research-based READY! for Kindergarten program addresses the word gap issue by teaching parents how to “play with a purpose” with their young children. During this daily play, parents and children have conversations with each other other while using READY!’s free educational and fun toys, games, activities and books. READY! for Kindergarten materials teach parents and other primary caregivers the skills necessary for their child’s success in school. In Sandpoint, the Panhandle Alliance for Education funds READY! for Kindergarten, making it free to all parents of infants, toddlers and preschoolers. (This year the READY! program is also generously sponsored by BVG Construction/Seasons at Sandpoint). Three times a year, in the fall, winter and spring, parents may attend interactive workshops divided by age groups: birth to 1 year; 1 – 2 years; 2 – 3 years; 3 – 4 years; and 4 – 5 years. If parents begin attending workshops shortly after the birth of their child and continue until the spring before the child attends kindergarten, they are able to take 15 different, unique workshops. The next free READY! session will be held on Saturday morning, January 25, 2014. Free childcare for children ages 13 months to 11 years is offered. Pre-registration is available at www.readysandpoint or 208-263-7040.

The bottom line is this: Parents can help close the word gap by remembering that how, and how much, they talk matters to a child, well before the baby begins talking back.

The Panhandle Alliance for Education is a nonprofit organization composed of local citizens, businesses, and educators. Their mission is to promote excellence in education and broad-based community support for the Lake Pend Oreille School District.