Language Gap Between Rich and Poor Evident in Toddlers
The language gap between rich and poor children may be well known but new research suggests the gap may be taking shape earlier than anyone expected.
A study conducted by a team of Stanford psychologists found that poorer kids are already well behind the language skills of wealthier kids by the time they’re 18 months old. By the age of 2, less-advantaged kids were on average six months behind better-off peers.
The research could bolster growing efforts that seek to increase the number of words spoken in the home, particularly among lower-education, low-income families.
In the Stanford study, researchers set out to compare the language development of infants from different socioeconomic backgrounds. While previous research has shown that disadvantaged kindergarteners often lack the language proficiency of their better-off classmates, this study sought to answer whether those class disparities show up as early as infancy.
For the study, published in the journal Developmental Science, children were placed on mom’s lap and shown two pictures of familiar objects. A recorded voice would then speak a sentence that included one of the two objects in it (“Look at the doggy”). Video footage allowed researchers precisely track the child’s eye movements and let them gauge whether the child looked at the correct photo and just how quickly they did so.
The study found significant correlations between socioeconomic status (SES) and vocabulary, accuracy and reaction time to the spoken-word prompts. In short, the wealthier kids knew more words and processed language faster. When it came to accuracy, the scores of the lower-SES kids at 24 months of age were the same as the higher-SES kids’ scores at 18 months. Processing speed followed the same pattern.
“These differences were equivalent to a 6-month disparity between the higher- and lower-SES children, in vocabulary size and in both measures of language processing efficiency,” the study says.
The design of the study, led by Anne Fernald, was intended to remedy one of the problems facing previous studies, in which research subjects tended to be well-educated, affluent families. To get around the “convenience sample” problem and find a more socioeconomically diverse group of children, the study drew from two populations.
The first group of 20 kids was selected from the Stanford area and were relatively affluent. The other group of 28 kids was selected from an urban region several hours from the Bay Area with a similar population size but very different class picture. The median income in the first area was $69,000, compared to just under $24,000 in the second unnamed locale. Among the moms in the higher-SES group, 90 percent had a four-year degree, compared to 30 percent in the lower-SES group. The ethnic breakdown of the participants was a follows: non-Hispanic White (66%), Asian (13%), Alaskan Native/American Indian (10%), Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (6%), or African American (4%).
When researchers compared the reaction times of 18-month-olds, it took children in the lower-SES group about 200 milliseconds longer on average to identify the correct object. Higher-SES children were also found to have larger vocabularies by about 150 words, and gained significantly more new words over the study period – 268 words on average compared to 180 words in the lower-SES group.
Why then are toddlers from lower-class families scoring lower on these language tests? One likely explanation is that these kids are spoken to less and hear fewer words then their more affluent peers. “For lots of reasons, there is generally less supportive talk to children in families living in poverty, which could partially explain the SES differences we found in children’s early processing skill and vocabulary learning,” Fernald said in a news release.
At the University of Kansas in the mid-1990s, child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered that the amount of language a child heard spoken in the home was tightly correlated with socioeconomic status. Tina Rosenberg summarized some of their seminal findings in a New York Times’ “Fixes” column earlier this year:
The disparity was staggering. Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.
And as the Stanford study suggests, language disparities are taking root well before the age of 3. Left unaddressed, those gaps could have life-changing consequences. Citing earlier research on the early childhood language gaps, Fernald and her co-authors write: “Such a large disparity cannot simply be dismissed as a transitory delay, given that differences among children in trajectories of language growth established by 3 years of age tend to persist and are predictive of later school success or failure.”
Short of eliminating poverty, what might be done to close the language gap and give disadvantaged students a better shot at success? One obvious approach is to get parents talking to their kids more. The city of Providence, Rhode Island, is trying to do just that through the Providence Talks program after its grant proposal beat out hundreds of other cities in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge.
Starting in January, up to 2,000 families who participate in the program will receive a language recorder along with home visits and coaching on the importance of talking to their child. Once affixed to a child’s clothing, the recorder can tally the number of words the child hears over the course of the day. Since parents often aren’t aware of just how much or how little they’re talking to their child, the idea is to give parents an objective sense of language use in the home and encourage them to reach targets above their existing baselines.
“As many parents know, life with a young child is demanding and the experience can be a blur,” Deb Roy, a MIT cognitive scientist who studies how children learn language, told the Boston Globe earlier this year. “Having a simple way to look back and understand the language experience of your child, and understand what that might mean for his/her future seems to me a potential big win.”
Time and energy are always limited resources, and even more so in low-income homes. But talking itself doesn’t take money – it just requires some education and awareness. It’s a discussion worth having, over and over again.
Image by abbeybatchelder via Flickr