Hart and Risley (2003) investigated how socioeconomic status has an impact on early learning by studying the words used by parents around the children and then measuring the vocabulary of the children at various ages. This was for the purpose of understanding the development of language skills in relation to the home environment. The authors had conducted previous studies in the classroom setting on language and vocabulary skills development with children of low socioeconomic status which had mixed results. There were 42 families in this study, representing a high socioeconomic and education status, a middle income, low socioeconomic status and very low socioeconomic status as represented by being on welfare. In order to conduct this research the investigators spent an hour per month with the families noting all interactions with the child as well as the words used around the child. They started this when the children were approximately seven months old, and the study was conducted over 4 years. The researchers were also able to reassess more than half of these children at the age of approximately 9 years old. The results of the study showed that the vocabularies of families and children differed greatly by socioeconomic group. In fact, it was estimated that there was a 30 million word gap between the vocabularies of the lowest and highest socioeconomic groups. The researchers estimated that there was a strong correlation between the words and vocabulary used at home and the vocabulary of the child, with over 86% of the words used by the child found in the words used in the home. Another major finding concerned encouragement versus discouragement. While the authors did not set out to monitor that aspect, they did not that the different socioeconomic groups varied greatly in the proportion of encouraging comments made towards a child versus discouraging comments.
The disparity between the vocabularies of families in the different socioeconomic groups was surprising, although I had some concerns with how it was presented. It left the reader with the impression that there is a strong relationship between the size of a person’s vocabulary and their income, and I am sure that it is not so simple. It was beyond the scope of the study to make such an inference, and I felt that this should have been addressed in the text of the article.

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An interesting feature of the description of the study was that the authors indicated the number of families in each socioeconomic group that were Black, however they did not note any other ethnic backgrounds of families and they did not report on whether the Black families differed in any respect from the non-Black families.

One of the assumptions that were made by the authors was that vocabulary was very important and a relevant measure of school readiness. This measure is only one of many, but as reflected in the title, the disparity in vocabulary was seen as a “catastrophe”. This is questionable, as it would require further research to establish that vocabulary was the most important single indicator in education and intelligence. No information was included which established that fact. While it can easily be agreed that it is an important factor, it can also be argued that vocabulary alone is not the most important indicator, and it is not necessarily related to important learning outcomes such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence or other desired outcomes of childhood which ready an individual for adulthood.

The data and the conclusions are aligned, xxx. With regard to whether there is sufficient data to support the author’s generalizations, the specific findings of the study with regard to the divergence in vocabulary were supported, however some of the generalizations that were made with regard to that divergence representing, among other things, a catastrophe, were not well supported. Many questions remain unanswered; for example, the authors indicated that while words could be taught to children in the lower socioeconomic groups, any gains were soon “washed away”. Given this outcome, it is not clear what the gains are of a greater vocabulary, nor is it clear whether the gains of being in a family with a high volume vocabulary, as indicated by the socioeconomic status, could not also be “washed away” by a change in circumstances.

Future studies on this topic could be improved by first of all establishing what a child’s early and later vocabulary volume means in terms of desired learning outcomes and the future of the child, and also by ensuring that a more robust approach is taken to observation. Also, it would be important to conduct a study which included far more than 42 families, to ensure that the results were statistically significant. It might be warranted to separate the study into one focused on vocabulary, and one focused on the disparity between encouraging and discouraging comments, as this represented an important but separate area of investigation. To further support the findings and the importance of the findings, particularly the generalization regarding the “catastrophe” of divergence, two aspects should be addressed. The first is language in the home. A future study should look at vocabularies of bilingual homes, such as those found in the Hispanic community, in an exploratory way to determine if there are similar effects or gains in relation to the potential vocabulary increase represented by the use of two languages. The second would be to establish the linkage between the vocabulary size of a child at various ages and the impacts that this has on learning and outcomes of child development.

  • Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American educator, 27(1), 4-9.