What Happens in the Home Before Kids Start School Affects Their Vocabulary & Overall Academic Success

photo of a home

We Need to Increase the Amount of Talk in the Homes of Many Students

Whenever people discuss the achievement/opportunity gap, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Hart & Risley study from 1995. You can read the entire study in this book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Hart & Risley, 1995) OR you can read the synopsis here: The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 (Hart & Risley, Spring 2003). I strongly suggest you read the synopsis and this five page pdf, “The Everyday Experience of American Babies: Discoveries and Implications” by Todd R. Risley” Seven Surprising Findings from the Meaningful Difference Study**

During the 1960s “War on Poverty,” Hart & Risley were performing interventions in preschools to boost the vocabulary sizes of children living in poverty. They discovered they could increase the size of a child’s vocabulary, but they could not accelerate the rate of vocabulary growth.

These findings made them want to look at what was happening in the home that might be affecting the size and rate of vocabulary growth–Hart and Risley did not want to believe it was heredity alone. By reading birth announcements, they recruited families who just had babies. They also recruited families of friends who recently had babies. They weeded out candidates trying to be sure the families would stay in the study for the duration. Their final sample included 42 families. Some of the families were considered poor, some were middle class, and some had a professional background. Hart, Risley, and others observed each family for one hour every month over 2 1/2 years.

Their data showed that there was a striking difference in the numbers of words heard in the families depending on their socioeconomic classes. To see the grave differences, see the Hart & Risley area of this* Differences in Quantity & Quality of Talk (in chart form).

What do I mean by grave differences? Well, according to Hart and Risley’s extrapolation, after four years, children in welfare families would have heard 32 million words less than children from professional families. (See the synopsis or the chart for specific numbers). That is a HUGE disadvantage and it needs to be addressed if we are serious about closing the gap–especially since vocabulary knowledge is so highly correlated to reading comprehension and overall academic success.

Hart and Risley also looked at how often children were encouraged and discouraged. Their findings showed that children in welfare families were receiving more words of discouragement than encouragement. (See the synopsis or the chart for specific numbers). This also must play a role in overall academic success.

After 2 1/2 years of observation, Hart and Risley spent years analyzing the data. Their overall finding was that the amount and quality of talk from parents differed immensely in these families and that these interactions were strongly linked to their children’s language development at three years old.

Just like their previous studies, Hart & Risley found that children from welfare families had smaller vocabularies that developed at a slower rate than children from higher socioeconomic families.

Hart & Risley wanted to know if one could predict how well a child would do in school from what was happening in the home between parent and child. They wanted to know if the vocabulary size of the three-year-olds could predict the measures of language skill for them when they were nine and ten years old. It did! (See the synopsis for more details).

Hart & Risley caution against inflated numbers due to the extrapolation. However, they point out that even if their numbers were two times higher than reality, the differences were so great that even the best school intervention programs could not close the vocabulary gap.

After reading all of the above, do you understand why this study always comes to mind when discussions of the achievement/opportunity gap arise? People often mention that parents, teachers, schools, and politicians play the blame game. I bring this study up not to play the blame game, but to point out that what happens in the home before children enter school is so important. I do not think that parents intentionally send their children off to school with impoverished vocabularies. I think they do so because they do not understand what a critical a role they play in their child’s overall academic success–especially in the years before the child attends school.

I strongly advocate for reaching the parents who are not reading to their children or bathing them in language. We need to stress the importance of these early years and explicitly model good literacy building activities in the home. We also need to remind them to use more words of encouragement rather than words of discouragement. Our children need to come to school with an “I think I can” attitude–not “I think I can’t.”

I really try to be an open-minded person and I love to TWRC. I wonder what you are TWRCing after reading this post. I also wonder if this is the first time you heard about this study. If so, I wonder why. Personally, I really wonder why this study has not led to substantial change.

Other GREAT Resources That Discuss the Hart & Risley Study

Here are three other places I have discussed the Hart & Risley study and/or the achievement/opportunity gap:

*This overview of vocabulary concepts and research from the University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching and Learning is a favorite article and I have placed it in the sidebars in the “External Link Categories” area under “Vocabulary” and “Favorite Articles, Charts & Videos.”

**These were added on 4/20/2010.

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  • Lisa

    Julie, I'm not sure if you know this, but when your new pages are e-mailed to me, since I subscribed to your web page, the rating stars don't show up at the bottom. I had to come to your website to rate the article. I've read your previous posts but didn't rate them or comment because I didn't realize I had to come to your website to do it. I don't know if there is a way for you to change that, but I would probably rate and comment more often if I could do it right from the e-mailed page. I really enjoy your posts. I hadn't read this article because being a married mom of 3 working 3 days a week I'm lucky to get my house and kids taken care of, papers graded and lesson planning done. I rarely have time to do much research, so, this is a great resource for me to pop in when I have a minute and I can TWRC while I'm reading my e-mails. Thank you for your hard work!

  • http://beginningreadinghelp.blogspot.com/ Michelle Breum

    I had not heard of this study.

    Any effort we make to educate parents and encourage literacy involvement is time well spent. Thanks for sharing this information. I've checked out Jim Trelease's site so far. I plan to look into the other resources you have shared. You have gotten me thinking more about ways I can help educate parents, especially low income families. So much to do, so little time.

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    I do not think you are the only one who has not heard of this study and that bothers me. Why is this study such a hidden secret? I cannot remember if I learned about it directly from the master's program in reading, or if I found it on my own while researching vocabulary. I have often heard it referenced at the International Reading Association conventions and in reading research literature. However, I wonder why it seems to be kept from the parents–the ones who need to know it most. I wonder if it's because people in power think it's flawed, because they think there is nothing they can do about it, or if there is another reason.

    I highly recommend Jim's “Read Aloud Handbook.” If you ever get the chance to hear him speak in person, jump on it! I have heard him speak twice and he is absolutely fabulous. Unfortunately, I think he has retired from speaking. :(

    I am glad you are thinking about ways you can help educate parents–especially those in poverty. I attended Head Start and I know their parental education had a huge impact on my life. (I will probably write a post about that later.) Thanks for promoting the National Read to Kids Campaign on http://www.change.org , too. I would love to see high-quality public service announcements aimed at parents of young children in the media as often as I hear fast food commercials. I also hope that the Reach Out and Read program continues to grow. If you are not familiar with that program, you can check it out at: http://www.reachoutandread.org/

    Thanks for your comment and happy TWRCing! :)

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    I did not even think about the ratings not showing up in email subscriptions. Thanks for pointing that out. Unfortunately, I don't think I can change that. I think you can click on the post title in the email. That should take you directly to that post on this site…I think. I really appreciate the time people take to comment and rate the articles. I am definitely a feedback junkie.

    I can see how being a parent, wife and teacher makes it difficult to find the time to do extra research. I am so glad that you can now TWRC while reading emails. :D

    Thank you for all the time you have taken to give me feedback. You make my day!

  • http://beginningreadinghelp.blogspot.com/ Michelle Breum

    I added Reach Out and Read to my resource page. Thanks. I'll see how I can
    get more involved in the future.

  • Karis Sweeton

    This is the first time I have heard of this study.
    I agree with your statement that we need to reach parents who are not reading to their children or bathing them in language. This discussion reminds me of Heath's Trackton study and follow up study: The Children of Trackton's Children: Spoken and Written Language in Social Change (in Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading, 5th ed., Eds. R.B. Ruddell, N.J. Unrau). Heath observes that the people of the impoverished community of Trackton did not have special question and answer routines, baby talk games, or provide labels of items in the environment to their children. As Heath followed 2 families of children who grew up in Trackton, she found that one of the mothers, who lived on welfare in an apartment, spoke to her children 14% of the recording time and that these exchanges lasted for less than one minute. She asserts that the mother's own language development was halted as a result of being confined in a transient community and cut off from her family and community. I wonder if the significant lack of language development and vocabulary among families on welfare is more due to a lack of connection to a supporting community. I think reaching out to these families to become part of community institutions to help foster cultural membership would play an important role in families interacting more with each other and developing language. As Heath states in her study, “Alienation from family and community- . . . appears to play a more critical role in determining whether a student finishes high school than the socioeconomic markers of family income, education level, and so on” (Heath, 1990).

  • Andrea Lewis

    I have heard about studies like this in a very general sense that low income and low socioeconomic communities seem to lack in education and good schools, they have high student drop out rates, and low student motivation for learning. It is almost like a vicious cycle that occurs in low income communities. The parents of the children did not receive a good education and they end up stuck in a community of poverty and little opportunity at a way out. In turn, they might not see an importance to educate their children. They are simply just trying to survive let alone teach their children and enhance their vocabularies. Then their children end up becoming low performers in school and the cycle continues. Education needs to be seen as an important part of culture and society whether that society is poor or wealthy. Awareness and change is the key to success.

  • Yvette Ortiz

    In one of my master’s class I wrote a paper on vocabulary acquisition. After reading your blog, I immediately reminded of this paper because I also read Hart and Risley and cited them in my paper. Being that I did a paper on vocabulary acquisition, I have read many studies that support your blog. The studies that I have read discussed how vocabulary affects student achievement, specifically reading comprehension. Many studies (Biemiller, 2003; McKeown et al., 1985) indicated that vocabulary differences greatly affect reading comprehension and a rich and large vocabulary correlates with reading proficiency and school achievement. Graves (2006) stated that huge vocabulary deficits could be detrimental to reading comprehension and “can be a crucial factor underlying the school failure.” Additionally, Biemiller (2003) indicated that in grades three and above, the impact of low vocabularies become more apparent because comprehension of written text begins to exceed many students’ vocabulary. Once this difference in vocabulary knowledge has been established, it is difficult for students with smaller vocabularies to catch up to their peers.

    After reading Hart and Risley’s study and the studies mentioned above, one can see the importance of vocabulary development, not only at school, but also before students come to school. With the evidence that we have, it’s amazing that we don’t see some sort of movement in educating parents on the influence they have on their children’s vocabulary acquisition, especially in low socioeconomic areas. I, too, realize that parents do not intentionally send their children to school with impoverished vocabularies. So movements, such as creating family literacy nights and parent workshops, should not diminish home efforts, but build off what parents already know.

    As a future reading specialist, this has the studies presented has strong implications for me. I need to think about what I could to educate families. I feel like families want what is best for their children, but some don’t know exactly what to do to help their children. Education is power, and so if we can reach the parent community and educate them, perhaps we can create some change. Additionally, teachers need to be aware of such studies because they can realize that they, too, have a big influence in children’s vocabulary development and that they also need to include high quality, research-based vocabulary instruction as part of their reading curriculum.

    The following are some of the studies I have read about vocabulary development and vocabulary instruction:

    Biemiller, A. (2003). Vocabulary: Needed if more children are to read well. Reading Psychology, 24, 323-335.
    Graves, M. (2006). Building a comprehensive vocabulary program. The New England Reading Association Journal, 42(2), 1-7.
    McKeown, M., Beck, I., Omanson, R., & Pople, M. (1985). Some effects of the nature and
    frequency of vocabulary instruction of the knowledge and use of words. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(5), 522-535.

  • Karina Ruiz

    Wow! What a powerful study! I've read and heard so much about the importance of early family literacy, but I wish I would have read it earlier in the Master's Program though this study. The role of parents is just amazing! It's such a huge responsibility, and like you said parents do not intentionally send their children to school with impoverished vocabularies. I agree, they just don't realize what a major role THEY play in their child's literacy development and academic success. This is why educating parents is so important. Parents are the first teachers and they need to know how important it is to read aloud to children, converse with them, and immerse them in language. I think educators need to help empower parents and begin looking at them as a valuable tool to student success.

  • tranmichelled

    This is the first time I have heard of this study, although the findings do not surprise me. The need for vocabulary instruction is so important, but I can see how the challenge can made even more difficult because of educational practices. Not to play the “blame game” like you mentioned, but I think many families do not get the message from schools of the importance of vocabulary development. My adminstrator reinforces a need for “basic skills” instruction to support the literacy of El's, so I myself have been guilty of putting a greater emphasis on areas such as decoding and spelling. This has really made me think about my own practice and what I'm doing to support my students.

    In one of my graduate courses, I did a collaborative project on family
    literacy, which I immediately thought of when viewing your post. I read an article by Lalik, Dellinger, and Druggish (2003)for this project, that highlighted the importance of the home school connection for literacy development. Particularly in the area of vocabulary, helping students to connect what they learn in school with the cultural and literacy practices at home, can allow them to increase vocabulary knowledge. Family literacy programs can really help serve the purpose of modeling the importance of literacy practices, and provide examples of how to do in the home Ortiz, R. & Ordonez-Jasis, R. (2005), especially, as you mentioned, that intervention programs cannot completely close the vocabulary achievement gap.

    What I also thought about is what kind of vocabulary instruction takes place the classroom. A lot of times, for one reason or another, vocabulary instruction can be very mundane requiring students to simply beable to regurgitate definitions. (Unfortunately, I have been guilty of doing so myself). This article, along with what I have learned in my reading graduate program, has really made me aware of how vocabulary needs to allow students to not just know what the words are and what they mean, but how to use and apply them in meaningful ways (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). Simply matching terms to definitions only targets the lowest level of Bloom's Taxonomy, versus fostering higher level thinking.

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

    Andrea, poverty *is* a vicious cycle and it is shameful that we have so many poor people in the United States. However, living in poverty does not necessarily mean one *is* doomed to fail. There are great success stories of people rising above poverty. One of my favorites is the story of Dr. Ben Carson. You can read about him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Carson

    I heard him speak at the International Reading Association last year and he was phenomenal! The Wikipedia article (above) doesn't mention why his mom limited his TV time. In his speech, he told us that his mother was a housekeeper and she was very observant. She noticed that those who did well did not spend much time in front of the television. After this ah-ha, she limited her children's television viewing time and made them write weekly book reports. In his speech, Dr. Carson said that “within a space of 1 1/2 years, I went from the bottom of the class to the top.” He also said, “When I was in 5th grade, I thought I was stupid and conducted myself as a stupid person and thought I didn't need to listen. In 7th grade, I thought I was smart and conducted myself as a smart person and listened and wanted to learn more.” (I am not sure if that is verbatim, but it is what I have written down.)

    You can watch a short video clip about him and learn about his scholarship fund at : http://carsonscholars.org/ I believe he started it because he was upset that our nation celebrates athletic talent over academic achievement and good citizenship. I am sure this is part of the problem. I think it was Jim Trelease who I once heard say that males in our country began to read much less once the ESPN channel came about. These two things go hand in hand, don't they?

    Dr. Carson mentioned that we used to be a nation that cared about each other and he wants us to become a caring nation once again. This makes me think about Karis' comment below about the Trackton study. He also mentioned that we are an excuse laden society and that we need to stop accepting excuses because when you stop accepting excuses, you look for ways to solve your problems.

    My point? I do not want people in poverty to have excuses. I want them to know what they need to do in order to help their children be successful in life. Currently, I think many parents (especially those from poverty) don't know how to do this. I come from a very poor family, but I managed to get a master's degree. I think part of this is because my mother enrolled her youngest two in Head Start. (It was not around for my older siblings.) In my opinion, the best thing about Head Start was that it required my mom to take parenting classes. Thanks to the classes, my mother took her youngest two children to the library on a weekly basis. (I am the youngest of seven.) The two of us are the only two who went on to get a college degree. Hmm… seems like that library is a pretty powerful place to overcome poverty, isn't it? Too bad our country is now closing libraries on certain days and shortening the hours they are open. :(

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I hope I didn't birdwalk too far. :)

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

    Thank you for taking the time to comment, Karina. My reply? Well said! Well said! :D

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

    That is a very good point that teachers and administrators often reinforce a need for basic skills, rather than vocabulary development and knowledge of the world. That *does* add to the problem, doesn't it?

    Thank you for bringing the studies you mention in paragraph two to my attention. I don't believe I've read them. They sound interesting. I will have to track them down.

    Yes, the vocabulary instruction in the classroom is another issue, altogether. I learned much about vocabulary from Nagy & Anderson, as well as from Graves; Beck & McKeown; Biemiller; and Hiebert. (That is just from the top of my head, I am sure there have been many others who influenced my understanding.) I will probably write more posts about vocabulary and include links to some of the resources that really helped me understand the huge task that is teaching vocabulary.

    Thank you so much for your insightful comment and for TWRCing with me. :D

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    I think Risley mentioned the Trackton study in his interview on http://www.childrenofthecode.org , but I'm not sure. I have not read the study, so I thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    After reading your very thoughtful comment, I did a little Googling and ran across this 27 pg. PDF by Heath: http://www.reading.org/Publish.aspx?page=bk711-… . I look forward to reading it in full.

    I know I read somewhere that the more communities value education, the better the children do in school. So, I agree that we need to reach out to the community at large–not just the parents. I worry most about the children and parents in dangerous neighborhoods. It must be very difficult to establish a caring and close-knit community if you are always worried about things like gangs and drug dealers. However, I bet there are examples of such neighborhoods that manage to come together for the sake of the children. I wonder if there are studies that show how the successful ones do it.

    Keep in mind that not all the children in the poor families in the Hart & Risley study ended up with an impoverished vocabulary, nor did all of the children in the professional families end up with the largest vocabularies. It all depended on the talkativeness of the parents which sounds a bit like what you were saying about the Trackton families. So, we only need to reach the parents who do not talk a lot and who are alienated from their communities. Simple task, right? ;)

    Thank you so much for your insightful comment and for making me TWRC. I wish studies like this were common public knowledge and that the government invested more money in trying to ensure that all children start school on a more even playing field.

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    It is funny, but I somehow skipped your comment and replied to tranmichelled before yours. You have cited many of the same people I mention in my reply to her. It sounds like you are well read when it comes to vocabulary research. Bravo! It is such an important topic. I also thank you for the full citations of the articles you read. I will have to track down the ones I have not read.

    In the future, I plan to write more about vocabulary and will cite the articles and books that helped me. I know there are also several excellent PowerPoints available on the Internet from these vocabulary researchers. Some of them might be great for the family literacy nights you recommend. I am very much in agreement with you. Family literacy nights are a great way to educate parents on what an important role they play in their child's education success.

    Recently, I was at a workshop with Isabel Beck and brought up the Hart and Risley study. I wish I had written down her response. She was very familiar with the study, but since it does not focus on what happens in the school, I don't think she wanted to talk about it much. Her focus is on helping teachers teach vocabulary in the schools more effectively. I learned great things from her that day and hope to write a post about her presentation. It was phenomenal! Have you read the book, “Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction” (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002)? I highly recommend it.

    Thank you so much for including the great quotations about the correlation between vocabulary and reading comprehension, and for your very reflective comment. I hope to share and learn with you in the future. :D

    P.S. If you ever make it to an International Reading Association convention, be sure to go to one of Michael Graves' sessions. Not only is he highly informative, be he is also very funny! The same goes for Elfrieda “Freddy” Hiebert.

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    It is funny, but I somehow skipped your comment and replied to tranmichelled before yours. You have cited many of the same people I mention in my reply to her. It sounds like you are well read when it comes to vocabulary research. Bravo! It is such an important topic. I also thank you for the full citations of the articles you read. I will have to track down the ones I have not read.

    In the future, I plan to write more about vocabulary and will cite the articles and books that helped me. I know there are also several excellent PowerPoints available on the Internet from these vocabulary researchers. Some of them might be great for the family literacy nights you recommend. I am very much in agreement with you. Family literacy nights are a great way to educate parents on what an important role they play in their child's education success.

    Recently, I was at a workshop with Isabel Beck and brought up the Hart and Risley study. I wish I had written down her response. She was very familiar with the study, but since it does not focus on what happens in the school, I don't think she wanted to talk about it much. Her focus is on helping teachers teach vocabulary in the schools more effectively. I learned great things from her that day and hope to write a post about her presentation. It was phenomenal! Have you read the book, “Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction” (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002)? I highly recommend it.

    Thank you so much for including the great quotations about the correlation between vocabulary and reading comprehension, and for your very reflective comment. I hope to share and learn with you in the future. :D

    P.S. If you ever make it to an International Reading Association convention, be sure to go to one of Michael Graves' sessions. Not only is he highly informative, be he is also very funny! The same goes for Elfrieda “Freddy” Hiebert.

  • Lisa Mo

    I agree with Karis. When I read your synopsis of Hart and Risley's study, I immediately thought of Heath's study on the children of Trackton (1990). In her study, she recorded the interactions between Zinnia Mae and her children. Zinnia had moved away from her family and community and therefore, had limited resources. Communication usually had “instrumental and social interactional/recreational” purposes (p.199). While the point of Heath's study focused on language socialization–rather than how SES affects langauge development (which seems to be a major factor in Hart and Risley's study)–it is still valid for examining how parent interaction affects a child's vocabulary development and in turn, background knowledge. If Zinnia Mae remained in her community, her children would have more exposure to different groups of people of varied ages. Heath puts it well: “Zinnia Mae not assume a key role in enabling her children to learn to use language across a wide variety of genres, styles, and functions” (p. 200). Without the advantage of such resources, her children's vocabulary development suffered.

    Furthermore, literacy acquisition crosses language boundaries. Ortiz and Ordonez-Jasis (2005) documented several studies that have found that Latino families engage in literacy practices—such as oral storytelling or looking at print around their neighborhood—that contribute a child’s acquisition of literacy. Surely, family literacy practices would be part of a discussion regarding achievement/opportunity gap.

    I'm assuming that it's because of studies like Hart and Risley's that we have Head Start programs that aim to give the low SES children a fighting chance before they enter school.

    Thanks for the discussion!

    Heath, S. B. (1990). The children of Trackton’s children: Spoken and written language in social change. In Ruddell, R.G. & Unrau, N. J. (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed., pp. 116-132). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

    Ortiz, R. & Ordonez-Jasis, R. (2005). Leyendo juntos/reading together: New directions for Latino parent early literacy involvement. The Reading Teacher, 59(2), 110-121.

  • http://www.recycleyourreads.com/ Reading Countess

    One of the many wonderful things I love about your blog is the reflective nature of your writing coupled with strong professional citings. I HAVE heard of these studies, and I agree, why are we not doing something about it as a nation? I predict that by the next generation of kids coming in to be schooled, that ALL children will be educated starting with preschool, regardless of income or language deficits. This, in my humble opinion, will greatly erradicate the language deficit we currently see. But this does not erase the first 0-4/5 years. How we, as a nation, cannot begin to address this glaring difference is a wonder to me.

  • Cindy Okamoto

    This is the first time I have heard of this study as well.
    I too try to have an open mind and desire to help parents understand the importance of literacy exposure before a child enters school.
    I am a parent of two, an 8 year-old boy and a 5 year-old girl. When they were babies, I was involved in a mom’s group. We had speakers come a share with us about ways to raise our child, discipline, nutrition, and reading to our children. These speakers always provided great information, helpful tips, and time for discussion among our table groups. Now during this time, I was not teaching, in fact going back to work was far from my mind, so honestly I did not have my teachers hat on during the discussion, but more my mom hat on based on the group. Any way, what I do remember is during discussions, questions would come up about what to do in order to improve on a child’s development and what are good discipline strategies, but I never remember mom’s asking about language/literacy development. Now looking back, this should have been a red flag. Why, mom’s from middle to upper socioeconomic backgrounds, weren’t they concerned about literacy development. In fact, I remember mom’s asking, “When is a good time to start reading to my child”.
    As a reading specialist, one of my desires is to go back to that group and other mom’s groups and share the importance of literacy development and provide helpful tools and activities parents can be using with their child before they enter school.
    I have recently just finished a presentation on vocabulary enrichment and during my study and reading of a variety of resources, I was amazed at all the activities a teacher and parent can explicitly model to their child in order to have a higher level of vocabulary. Activities like: singing songs, playing matching games (word w/picture), charades, reading a story or a billboard, having conversations, pointing out objects and signs when driving or walking around the neighborhood (Hadaway, Vardell, & Young, 2008). All these activities are such simple things. I hope that if I have the opportunity to be a speaker at these mom groups that I can at least offer these suggestions.

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

    Thank you for your very kind words, Reading Countess! :D I love to TWRC and I love research! I think part of why I am fascinating with teaching reading is that there are so many unanswered questions.

    I hope your prediction about universal preschool comes true and that it is quality preschool for all. That would definitely help.

    As to how we can address what happens in the first 0-4/5 years… What I have been thinking lately, is that we need to have public service announcements in the media as often as there are fast food commercials. These PSAs would be model good literacy practices in the home–including how to increase talk in the home; the importance of reading to your child; the benefits of weekly visits to the public library; and the importance of affirmations to children. Some would also focus on sharing the wealth of resources that are readily available because some parents simply do not know where to get help.

    As they say, how to close the achievement gap is the million dollar question. It just bothers me that teachers are always to blame when the gap is already present when students arrive in our classrooms.

    Thanks for TWRCing with me here, on Twitter, and on your blog! :D

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    Thank you for including more information on the Trackton study. I really need to track that down!

    I don't think the focus on the Hart & Risley study was on SES. In fact, in the 8 minute video clip, he mentions that what influenced vocabulary size most was not SES or race, it with the talkativeness of the parent. There were talkative parents in all SES groups and taciturn, or non-talkative, parents in all SES groups, too.

    Yes, family literacy practices should definitely be a part of the achievement gap conversation because literacy practices start at birth–not in kindergarten.

    You mention Head Start, of which I am a fan. It is my earliest alma mater. :D According to Wikipedia, “Head Start was started as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and Great Society. It was modeled on the Little School of the 400.” I know that Hart & Risley were working on research during the “War on Poverty” times, but it wasn't the “Meaningful Difference” study. I also know there are mixed reviews of Head Start's impact. You can read a little about them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_Start_Program . In the last three weeks, articles from people who want Head Start funding to stop were popping up everywhere and it saddened me because I know how much Head Start helped me.

    Thank YOU for the discussion and for making me TWRC! :D

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    Thank you for sharing that story. It is always great to hear the parent's perspective. I wonder what the response was to, “When is a good time to start reading to my child.” I hope it was “while they are in the womb.”

    In speaking with parents, Risley's piece of advice is not to make it complicated and to tell them to talk to their babies. Talk to them a lot!!! He points out that the parents who were the least talkative grew up in homes that were taciturn, or not talkative, so they are usually uncomfortable talking with their babies. Reading books to babies is a way that kind of forces interaction and conversation because it gives them a reason to talk. The more they talk, the less business talk (eg. sit down, don't touch that) it will be which means it will be of more high quality talk.

    All of the activities you mention in your last paragraph definitely encourage talk and should be fun ways for parents to interact with their children. I hope the opportunity to speak to parents arises for you, too. I can hear how much you want to help! :D

  • michellechoi

    I am surprised that I have never heard of this study. This study shows the vast difference in vocabulary acquisition and overall achievement that occurred in students in the 1960s and is still completely relevant to students now. The amount of language that children are exposed to in the early years are vital to their language development. I really liked the point you made about the “blame game.” But really, it does takes a village to raise a child. Every component of a child's life pertains to his overall success. Parents need to realize that they are the vital first step in building the child's language and setting the example of the importance of education and reading. I think that people need to take away from this study that parents need to actively be apart of their child's education. Many parents leave it up to the teachers and wonder why their child is not the best student in the bunch. Teachers need to reach out to parents and parents need to reach out to teachers in creating a reading community for the child. I recently completed a group presentation about the importance of promoting family literacy. Many families that do not have a strong educational background feel at a loss with their children because they feel that do not have the language and the resources to help their child. Teachers need to educate parents in ways to promote literacy in the home. Parents who are not fluent in English can still read wordless picture books with their child and promote oral language. Parents can make a huge difference in their child's language just by conversing with them on a daily basis.

  • Tammy Tran

    Dear Julie,
    This is the first time I heard about this study, but am aware of the significant impact of parental involvement. In completing the reading masters program at CSUF, I realize that the more collaboration between administration, principals, teachers, parents, resources, community, etc students will only benefit. I personally am a big supporter of parental involvement and hope that when I get a full time teaching job to advocate participation in community service and build a strong home-school connection.

    Vocabulary is a concept that's often overlooked because as a reader, I tend to overlook unknown words and use context clues to figure out the meaning. It's also important to put into consideration resources of literacy materials available plays a factor, working parents, bilingual benefits, read alouds, and love of literacy through books magazines, newspaper, web, etc.

    I 100% agree with you when you stated, “Our children need to come to school with an “I think I can” attitude–not “I think I can’t.” Often times in the classrooms I sub at, there are children with low esteem and it breaks my heart. I guess, our job is to let them know that they can and teach about self efficacy of what you think is reality.

    Great article, keep up the wonderful work:)


    PS-I agree with Karina that it's important to empower parents to take a more proactive stand when it comes to their children's education. They are the future:)

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

    Dear Tammy,

    Yes, collaboration is key, but we need to reach parents when their children are babies. How do we best do that? That is another million dollar question, isn't it? Currently, we are not doing a good job. How I hope this changes soon!

    I am not sure if my family would have been considered taciturn (not very talkative) while I was growing up, but as a family overall, our vocabulary is poor. Mine is still much weaker than my peers and it bothers me. I, too, used to use context to try to figure out unfamiliar words or just skip them altogether. That is until I took a class at the community college which focused on becoming a successful student. To this day, I think this was the best piece of academic advice I ever received, “Read with a dictionary in your lap.” The teacher elaborated and explained that if you read without a dictionary nearby, chances are you will not walk to the area where the dictionary is located in order to look up an unfamiliar word. However, if the dictionary is in your lap (nearby), chances are more likely you will look it up. Makes sense, doesn't it? I know research shows that looking up words in a dictionary and writing sentences is NOT the best way to *teach* vocabulary. However, if you can use a dictionary effectively, it *does* help you learn new vocabulary. It helped me tremendously and still does to this day. (I will write a post about using context clues and the importance of using a good, student-friendly dictionary later.)

    There are also several studies indicating that the number of books a child has access to greatly impacts their academic success. I am sure I will write a post on that later, too. Access to books is definitely an issue for those in poverty who do not take full advantage of their local public library or roving bookmobiles. Pursuit of books is another issue. I wonder if Hart & Risley took a look at the number of books talkative families had in the home vs. the number of books found in taciturn families.

    Attitude *is* key, isn't it? The numbers of affirmations to prohibitions findings from the Meaningful Difference study were eye-opening. Kids in welfare families were not only talked to less, but they were also receiving much more negative feedback and much less positive feedback than their peers. Thus, they start school with impoverished vocabularies and low self-esteem. What a double whammy! :( Yes, as teachers, we must do our best to instill an “I think I can” attitude. I will probably write a post about that, too.

    Thank you so much for your comment and compliments, too! :D

    P.S. I wish you much luck in finding a full-time teaching position. I know how scarce they are here in Orange County, California.

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    I agree with everything you said after the first two sentences except I would add that it is not just teachers who need to educate the parents, it is really our entire nation–as you say, “it takes a village.” By the time children are assigned to their first teacher in a school setting, it is too late for the first-born child.

    As to what to take away from this study, I think the most important point is that parents need to talk a lot with their children from birth. The more they talk, the more unique words will be introduced.

    As to your second sentence… thank you! Because of it, I did a little more Internet research and found this great article by Risley which highlights the seven findings that surprised them the most. Here is a link to that 5 page pdf: http://srdad.com/SrDad/Early_Childhood_files/To… I will add this to the main post and the sidebar.

    Why did I feel compelled to do a little more research? Because I wasn't sure when this study actually took place. I can now refine my knowledge a lot, thanks to you! Although it may still have some inaccuracies, here is a summary of my new existing knowledge of the events surrounding the Meaningful Difference study:

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Betty Hart and Todd Risley (among many others I'm sure) felt they could break the poverty cycle with preschool in the 1960s. This time period was called the “War on Poverty.” The Head Start Program (preschool for poor children) began in 1965. (Sadly, JFK died in 1963, so he did not see the implementation of the Head Start program. JFK was only around for three years after its implementation.)

    In the War on Poverty years, Hart & Risley worked at increasing the everyday language of poor kids at Turner House Preschool in Kansas. (This is a completely different study than the one we have been discussing). In this study, Hart & Risley evaluated the vocabulary growth of the poor kids and compared it to the vocabulary growth of a group of children belonging to professors at the University of Kansas. (I am not sure if the professors' kids received the intervention or if they were just evaluated.) Anyway, Hart & Risley were happy they could increase the poor kids' vocabularies, but they realized they could not accelerate the rate in which the poor kids learned new words and added them to their vocabularies. More importantly, the poor kids could not be brought up to average. This led them to consider what was happening in the home. Before the Meaningful Differences study, Hart & Risley hadn't considered the fact that some families just talk to their kids more than others and that this makes a HUGE difference in a child's school success.

    The Meaningful Difference study began in 1982. The results were published in 1995.
    Usually it takes about 10 years for research to hit the classroom. We are now 15 years past the release of these important findings. I really wonder why they are still unknown to those who need to know them the most. I hope that within the next five years things will really change. I don't know if you read my comment about PSAs in response to ReadingCountess, but I honestly believe they would help a lot.

    Another thing the article in this link cleared up was that Risley says that families on welfare were taciturn (not very talkative) and it does not sound like there were any ifs, ands, or buts about it… but I could be wrong. On the other hand, families where the parents had advanced degrees were “mostly” talkative. Middle class families varied from the most talkative to the most taciturn.

    Another important take away is that taciturn parents usually grew up in taciturn families. They often look at talkative families and think it is odd to talk so much to a child. We need to get the taciturn parents over that awkward feeling and to get them to talk more (much, much more) to their children if we are ever to have all kids start on a more even playing field.

    Thank you SO much for your comment and for making me TWRC so hard, Michelle. :D

  • Sara Gramalki

    What an interesting study! However, I am unpleasantly not surprised. Teaching for the past four years at a low SES and low performing school, I have experienced the result of parents not reading to their children. Performing an informal survey of my students, only 3 out of the 20 said that their parents currently read to/with them every night and help them with their homework. Other students responded that they do not have anyone in the home to help them read or do homework. I teach third grade and I can safely say that this pattern has carried on since the time my students were born. When asked, “why?” their parents do not help, most of my students respond that they are not home, busy at work, or mingling with friends. It just boggles my mind, how so many people in this world take on the responsibility of having a child, but then drop the ball and leave it as the responsibility of the teacher to educate that child. I know the saying “It takes a village to raise a child”, but I do not believe that it’s the “village's” responsibility to be a child's first educator when studies like this one prove the exact opposite.

    Michelle and I wrote a paper on family literacy. This study reminded me of our research of the importance of family literacy and its purpose to promote in parents and children the practice of reading together and interacting together in a reflective dialogue about books” (Ada, 2003, p.136). The goal is to promote student reading and conversations about text at home, so children can work towards achievement gains, regardless of familiar previous academic attainment and socioeconomic status. I think if parents understood the value of their early words and teachings, then family literacy and better vocabulary development could become a reality.

    • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

      Well said, Sara. Well said. Thank you taking the time to write such a great response.

  • Danielle Daly

    Although this study is sad, it is not surprising. It is unfortunate to know that children are not getting what they need at such a young age however, when looking at the SES it is understandable. Often times, parents of low SES are not home with their children because they are working or they are too tired when they get home. This could possibly explain why there is so much more discouragement. Students who come from higher SES usually have a parent that is home with them taking care of them. Since money is not so much of a strain there is more positive language. It is important to let parents know of this study through Family Literacy Nights and other parent information nights. Not to play the blame game, but express to them how important it is to start young. And although 5 minutes f reading to your child may not seem like a big deal, it will help them along it life so much more than they may realize.

    Often times, it is assumed that it is the sole job of the teacher to teach however, we do not get the children until they are 5 or 6 years old. Parents need to be given the resources and the knowledge so they can help with the vocabulary development of their child. Simply talking to them can be helpful. Having conversations about their day is more powerful than one may think. We are all busy with out own lives but we as adults, no matter our role need to stop for a second and pay some attention to our young learners. Although it may not seen to be a big deal now, it will cause many problems later. School is getting more demanding and more challenging. We as teachers need to supply our parents and children with the tools to be successful.

  • Erica Bowers

    thanks again for letting my graduate students visit your site and share their two cents!! This was a fantastic experience- Keep up the good work- we need your voice out there!!!

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    I taught at a low SES, low performing school (with a high ELL population) for years, too. Yes, working two jobs can leave parents with little time to be with their children. But you are right, parents still need to be responsible for them. If they cannot read and talk with their children, they should find a designated reader who will.

    I first heard the term “designated reader” on “Between the Lions.” I used to send home a letter to parents talking about the importance of reading and talking with children, along with a sign up sheet for designated readers. I believe it made a great impact for those who followed through.

    Only 3 children out of 20 being read to saddens me greatly. The responses your students (and mine) gave are mind boggling. I want to believe that it's mostly because parents don't understand the great role they play, rather than they simply don't care.

    I wish you much luck on your family literacy nights. Thanks for helping to spread the word and for your very thoughtful comment. :D

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

    Well said, Danielle. Well said. Thank you for posting such a thoughtful response. I wish you much luck in your family literacy nights! It is wonderful to know that you will be spreading the word. :D

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    Thank YOU for sending me your graduate students! This was a great experience for me, too. Your students really made me TWRC and refine my understanding of this important study. Please be sure to thank them for me and let them know I welcome the opportunity to TWRC with them any time. They sound like such passionate literacy advocates and that just warms my heart! :D

  • Carol Brasher

    I found the Risley article very interesting although the outcome was reasonably predictable. The article has impressed upon me even more how important the acquisition of early vocabulary development is to a child; this points out the importance of educating young parents of infants to this knowledge. These new parents, that have not entered the education system yet and who have not acquired this information, need some form of guidance. As a follow-up, I reviewed “The Everyday Experience of American Babies: Discoveries and Implications” by Risley. He made an interesting comment when he stated that the “amount of talk” that the parents used with their infants predicted their future success – not their social class or race. He continued that the volume of parent talk (non-business talk) produced large differences in their achievement. He also pointed out, in the article, that the socio-economic status and race had moderate correlation with their intellectual achievement. Risley stated that some three year olds were so far behind in language experience and vocabulary size, intervention could not catch them up. Many babies in low income families seem to lack adult interaction except when necessary. Richard Sinatra cites Neuman & Celano (2001), in his article Creating a Culture of Vocabulary Acquisition for Children Living in Poverty that these families have limited access to books. This lack of text in infancy limits the amount of vocabulary that the children hear.

  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    I apologize for taking so long to reply. The International Reading Association kept me very busy last week and I am now just catching up.

    Risley's comment that “the 'amount of talk' that parents used with their infants predicted their future success – not their social class or race” stood out to me, too. Such a simple (but very important) message to pass on to parents.

    Another point he made in the “Babbling to Books” video that sticks in my mind is that taciturn parents (parents who don't talk a lot) grew up in taciturn homes and they think talking to children is odd. He suggested that we need to assure taciturn parents that talking to children is not only normal, but very important, too. He also pointed out that having books in the home kind of forces language from taciturn parents in a very natural way. Thus, your last statement makes sense, “This lack of text in infancy limits the amount of vocabulary that the children hear.” (I really like the Reach Out and Read program for this reason. I wrote about it at: http://twrctank.com/2010/04/21/medicine-to-help… )

    Thanks for sharing the article title. I looked on the Internet and found it. Although the article sounds great, I have to purchase it to read. I am happy to see that it was published in 2008. For anyone else interested, you can find it at: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~conten

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response and for sharing the article with me. Happy TWRCing! :D

  • http://tinamcinerney.wordpress.com/ Tina McInerney

    The Real Me and The Truth About Reading


    The poem on which the book is based was widely circulated on the web through the alternative learning communities, and their positive response and encouragement was part of the inspiration for creating The Truth About Reading !

    I hope you’re amused by the words that you read. It’s a story of people! A whole Different Breed Where do they live? Why, they live all around us! They drive cars and airplanes and ride on the bus Some build space ships, they’re movie stars too, Presidents, teachers, what can we do? Lawyers, Princesses and folks with degrees, all living amongst us. Just wait, you’ll see

    A long time ago when I went to school I was a strange little fish in an unhappy pool! I tried to swim like the rest of the sea but I knew deep inside this just wasn’t me If we still lived in caves and drew on the walls I would understand and be the best of them all

    Off to the doctor shop to test out my brain You know I thought they thought I was insane My IQ is broken It’s running too high But I am not hyperactive nor am I shy ’m clever and funny and utterly bold ……..I could have been rich. If I just fit the mould

    Now there are two more amongst us, as you can see All just as weird and wonderful as their Mom Me We have heaps of trouble telling the time Like numbers and letters they’re out of our mind Waiting to flip them and flop them and then turn them around and do it again

    Spelling – don’t go there how can we be wrong? When we know all the music to every new song! All our forwards are backwards So that reading’s a chore But we can tell incredible stories for hours or more

    Now you don’t have pictures But we still have text It’s what makes us look like we are complete nervous wrecks!

    Take the word bad ….. what do you see? That is of course if you have trouble reading like me …. I learn with my eyes And it’s not a surprise to find out intelligence is not compromised Yet the part of our minds that helps us to read Is traveling around at incredible speed

    But the cool thing about all these strange goings-on Is it makes us creative and different and strong

    For now and forever I hope you agree that the truth about reading is just different for me!

    by Tina McInerney

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  • Froshmathteach

    I had not heard of this study before, but it seems to make a lot of sense in many ways. If a child comes from a home where at least one parent is a college graduate, it makes sense that the vocabulary being used in the home is at a higher level than a home where the parent does not have a high school diploma. I knew there would be a difference, but was amazed that it was as much as 32,000,000 words. This reinforces that we need to make sure we are doing everything we can for all children, but especially those that may not have the support system outside of school in place.

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  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    I apologize for the extreme lateness in my response. It slipped by me somehow. :(

    The 32 million word gap shocked me, too! I think it is great information to share with parents. Maybe if more parents knew about the study, there would be more talking and reading going on in homes.

    Thanks again for taking time out of your busy day to comment. I really appreciate it.


  • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen


    I apologize for the extreme lateness in my response. It slipped by me somehow. :(

    The 32 million word gap shocked me, too! I think it is great information to share with parents. Maybe if more parents knew about the study, there would be more talking and reading going on in homes.

    Thanks again for taking time out of your busy day to comment. I really appreciate it.


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