Bridge the word gap: speak 21,000 words to your preschooler daily

February 18, 2016

Some children hear about 21,000 words a day, others hear 6,000 or fewer. By age 3, that difference becomes a substantial word gap that predicts future success.



The idea of having a conversation with a toddler or preschooler may make some adults laugh. And it’s true that “conversations” with young kids are different, since adults need to do most of the talking (at least at first). But research shows that carrying on a conversation — even with babies — is essential for a child’s language development.


So what is meant by conversation? The very things that probably annoy you in adult conversations are exactly what your child needs to hear. Your conversation is going to state the obvious, be repetitive, and ask and answer your own questions. For example, if while walking down the street your child points out a truck, you can create the conversation by saying things like, “Yes, that’s a truck. It’s a big truck. It’s a big red truck.”


This might seem silly, especially if your child doesn’t respond verbally. But child development experts say it’s crucial.


Research shows that young children need to hear about 21,000 words per day. The simple act of talking to kids helps them develop not just their vocabulary, but their language skills, including listening, memory, and speaking. And beyond short-term verbal skills, these early interactions increase a child’s chances of completing both high school and college. Researchers from the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, found that children’s language skills at age 3 predict their language skills at age 9 or 10. And in turn, strong language and reading skills at age 9 sets your child up to perform better in high school, college, and beyond.


Unfortunately, not all children are hearing the same amount, or same quality, of words. Child psychologists Hart and Risley conducted a two-year study where they examined how parents of different socio-economic backgrounds spoke to their children. They found that by age 3, children in the poorer families heard roughly 30 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts.


Furthermore, the wealthier parents tended to build on conversations that children started. Thus cultivating a rich variety of nouns, modifiers, and past-tense verbs. While lower-income parents tended to speak in affirmations and imperative statements such as, “I love you” or “Stop that.”


How do we bridge the word gap?

Since Hart and Risley’s study, other researchers have confirmed that the word gap exists. A recent study at Stanford found that by 18 months old, children in different socio-economic groups show