A very funny little boy.

Closing the ‘Word’ Gap


There is an apparent gap in academic achievement between children from professional families, those from working class families and those from families on welfare due to poverty. There is a direct relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and spoken language development; as SES increases, so do lexical (vocabulary) size and diversity and grammatical complexity. There has been substantial research regarding the matter in order to implement educational programs that can help to close the gap.

Adriana Weisleder and Anne Fernald indicate one reason for such a language gap in their article Talking to Children Matters: Early Language Experience Strengthens Processing and Builds Vocabulary, “One source of variability in rates of language learning is differential access to language and gesture from caregivers. Some parents talk more and use richer vocabulary and gestures in interactions with infants than do others, and such differences in the quantity and quality of language input account in part for later disparities among children in lexical and grammatical development, both within and between SES groups.” (Hart & Risley, 1995; Hoff, 2003b; Huttenlocher, Waterfall, Vasilyeva, Vevea, & Hedges, 2010; Pan, Rowe, Singer, & Snow, 2005; Rowe & Goldin-Meadow, 2009, as cited by Weisleder & Fernald, 2013, pg. 2143)


Therefore, the amount and quality of language exposure that a child receives will directly influence his her later language development, which then forms the basis for academic achievement.


Another study conducted by Fernald, Marchman and Weisleder (2013) regarding the influence of SES on language-processing efficiency also found that the SES gap is likely the result of varying type and amount of language experience/exposure, or language opportunity. They also suggest an apparent variability in parental verbal engagement within social classes, not only between social classes.


It should be noted that language difference due to SES is not only due to parental level of education; confounding factors that effect language development include crowded living conditions, increased family stress levels and reduced access to resources (Evans, 2004, as cited by Weisleder & Fernald, 2013).


The following is a chart that illustrates just how wide the gap in word exposure is:

Socio-economic Status (SES) Average number of words heard per hour
Average Child on Welfare 616
Average Working-class child 1,251
Average Child in Professional Family 2,153

* As cited by Heart & Risley (2003) regarding a study of over 1,300 hours of casual interactions between parents and their children from approximately 7 months of age to 3 years.


Find out how this variation in word exposure and subsequent language processing ability can affect you and your baby, regardless of SES, by following the Baby Says More™ Blog.

For more information, please refer to:

Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A. & Weisleder, A. (2013). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science, 16(2), 234–248.

Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (2003). The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3. American Educator, Spring 2003, 4-9. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org//sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf

Weisleder, A. & Fernald, A. (2013). Talking to children matters: Early language experience strengthens processing and builds vocabulary. Psychological Science, November 2013 24: 2143-2152.

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