The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3

Read about the 30 Million Word Gap for lab and I thought it was incredibly interesting. The fact that a 3-year-old’s vocabulary can predict their language skills when they’re 9 to 10 years old is proof of why we need effective intervention programs.

  • Language-intensive activities in a preschool located in a low SES area caused children to learn a spurt of words while also causing an abrupt acceleration in cumulative vocabulary growth curves. However, researchers “could not accelerate the rate of vocabulary growth so that it would continue beyond direct teaching.” Like other early intervention programs, the increases in vocabulary were temporary, and when children started kindergarten a year later, the effects of the boost in children’s vocabulary wore out. Disparities among developmental trajectories of vocabulary growth were suggested to be caused by SES – professor’s children knew and were exposed to more words than children from a lower SES background. To me, this suggests that in order for early intervention programs to have a long term impact, they must be administrated throughout the child’s entire educational lifespan.
  • Vocabulary use at age 3 is predictive of language skill at age 9-10. Differences in early experiences do not wash out like the effects of preschool intervention. It seems like parents can predict how the child would do in school by the time they’re two years old. To create an effective intervention program, you have to give all children the same early experiences. Looking at only the amount of words heard by children, the average child in welfare heard 616 words, half the amount of words heard by the average working-class child (which is 1,251) and less than one third of words heard by the average child of a professor (2,153). This means that in four years, there is a significant difference of accumulated experience with words between each of the groups: the average child in a professional child is experienced with 43 million words, average working-class child is experienced with 26 million words, average welfare child is experienced with 13 million words. This is when we really see how big the problem is and how important early intervention is. In order for welfare child to essentially “catch up” to children of professional families, a lot of time and effort is required to equalize their experiences. The longer we wait to intervene, the more less possible change and equalization will become.
  • Also interesting is that there is a significant difference in the children’s hourly experience with encouraging words and prohibitions. By the age of 4, the average child in welfare might have heard 144,000 fewer encouragements and 84,000 more discouragements of their behavior than the average child of a working-class family.
  • What is the impact of hearing more discouragements than encouragements?
  • Were children in higher SES families encouraged for behaviors that were discouraged in welfare families?
  • Similar studies with bilingual families?
  • Were any children in the study bilingual? Did the study just count only words in English or did it also include non-English words?
  • Children in daycare vs. not in daycare
    • difference in vocabulary?


Hart, B., Risley, T. R. (2003). The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3. The American Educator27(1), 4-9.


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