Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

National Public Radio reported on the “word gap” last month. The story is a potent reminder of how research on young children’s development can be used to shape public discourse and inform policy solutions. Click here to listen.

In its report, NPR retold the research story that started in the early 1990s when Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that by age 3, lower income children hear 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers. “Today, despite years of focus and effort, the word gap is just as wide,” NPR’s Jennifer Ludden said in the broadcast story.

How does the word gap play out in everyday settings? At the Apple Tree Early Learning Public Charter School in Washington, DC, NPR interviewed principal Ryan Tauriainen who explained that some children use the word “dog” to refer to all animals because they don’t know the words for other animals. Tauriainen added that some children only speak in one-word answers, while others speak in paragraphs. Jack McCarthy, Apple Tree’s president, echoes the Hart and Risley research, telling NPR that children with smaller vocabularies invariably come from lower income homes.

“I recognized that we need to really start in the cradle,” Angel Taveras, the mayor of Providence, R.I. told NPR. As we’ve written, Taveras is about to launch Providence Talks, a program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies that builds off of the seminal Hart Risley research to impact the early language development of young children throughout the community.

The word gap has been getting lots of attention in recent months, from the New York Times, Atlantic Cities, Stanford University, and Hillary Clinton to name a few.

The recent increase in high-profile conversation about early language development is a welcome one. In an upcoming blog post, we will further explore the research behind the word gap and take a look at various policy and programmatic strategies that are emerging to address it.