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A 'Million Word Gap' for Kids Who Aren't Read To at Home

A ‘Million Word Gap’ for Kids Who Aren’t Read to at Home

Young children who are read five books a day from birth will begin kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to, according to a new study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

This “million word gap” could help explain the stark differences often seen in vocabulary and reading development among young children.

“Kids who hear more vocabulary words are going to be better prepared to see those words in print when they enter school,” said Jessica Logan, lead author of the study and assistant professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University. “They are likely to pick up reading skills more quickly and easily.”

And every little bit helps. Even children who are read only one book a day will hear about 290,000 more words by age 5 than those who don’t regularly read books with a parent or caregiver.

The idea for this research came from one of Logan’s previous studies, which found that about one-fourth of children in a national sample were never read to and another fourth were seldom read to (once or twice weekly).

“The fact that we had so many parents who said they never or seldom read to their kids was pretty shocking to us. We wanted to figure out what that might mean for their kids,” Logan said.

The researchers worked with the Columbus Metropolitan Library, which identified the 100 most circulated books for both board books (targeting infants and toddlers) and picture books (targeting preschoolers).

The team randomly chose 30 books from both lists and counted how many words were in each book. They found that board books contained an average of 140 words, while picture books contained an average of 228 words.

With that information, the team calculated how many words a child would hear from birth through his or her 5th birthday at different levels of reading. They assumed that kids would be read board books through their 3rd birthday and picture books the next two years, and that every reading session (except for one category) would include one book.

They also assumed that parents who reported never reading to their kids actually read one book to their children every other month.

According to their findings, here’s how many words children would have heard by the time they turned 5 years old: Never read to, 4,662 words; 1-2 times per week, 63,570 words; 3-5 times per week, 169,520 words; daily, 296,660 words; and five books a day, 1,483,300 words.

“The word gap of more than 1 million words between children raised in a literacy-rich environment and those who were never read to is striking,” Logan said.

The vocabulary word gap in this study is different from a conversational word gap and may have different implications for children, she said.

“This isn’t about everyday communication. The words kids hear in books are going to be much more complex, difficult words than they hear just talking to their parents and others in the home,” she said.

For example, a children’s book about Antarctic penguins may introduce words and concepts that are unlikely to come up in everyday conversation.

“The words kids hear from books may have special importance in learning to read,” she said.

The million word gap found in this study is likely to be conservative, said Logan. Parents will often talk about the book they’re reading with their children or add elements if they have read the story many times. This “extra-textual” talk will reinforce new vocabulary words that kids are hearing and may introduce even more words.

“Exposure to vocabulary is good for all kids. Parents can get access to books that are appropriate for their children at the local library,” Logan said.

Source: The Ohio State University

A ‘Million Word Gap’ for Kids Who Aren’t Read to at Home

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). A ‘Million Word Gap’ for Kids Who Aren’t Read to at Home. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 16, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2019/04/18/a-million-word-gap-for-kids-who-arent-read-to-at-home/144353.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Apr 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Apr 2019
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