Debunking the “Word Gap”

The AMC series, based on the iconic graphic series The Walking Dead, has finally included Rick admitting, “We are the walking dead” (Season 5, Episode 10).

Viewers witness the inevitable lethargy of living always under the threat of zombies, a reduced existence in which even stabbing a zombie in the brain is executed with a resignation that borders on macabre camp:

Maggie is confronted with death—and the walking dead—throughout the episode. We open to her weeping, as a walker shambles up behind her. She casually stands, and knifes the zombie in the skull. Later she finds a walker tied up and gagged in the trunk of a car. She must have been tied that way when she was alive, and starved to death before turning. It’s a horrible thought. Glenn kills that one for her. At the barn, she finds a third walker, this one apparently camped out there before she died.

I have explored the power of zombie narratives to examine the weight of living in poverty and the paralysis of anxiety, but here I want to add that one study and the term “word gap” are also yet more proof of the zombie apocalypse.

The “Word Gap” That Will Not Die

Like Maggie, I am nearly numb, having spent over thirty years in education mostly having to refute constantly misguided policy and misinformed media.

The most resilient and disturbing among those experiences is the term “word gap” and the single study that will not die—this time from Elizabeth Gilbert:

The term “word gap” was first coined in the 1995 Hart/Risley study that found low-income children are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers before age 3. This study and others have linked poor early literacy skills to lifelong academic, social and income disparities. Word gap initiatives primarily target low-income parents to help them understand the effect they have on their children’s cognitive development. Unfortunately, this misses another important part of the problem.

The deficit view perpetuated by Hart and Risley (not the credibility of the study or its claims) is as contagious as the zombie virus infecting everyone in The Walking Dead universe.

And while it would be easier just to lie down, give in, I remain steadfast against the “word gap” throng; thus, please take the time to consider the following reader:

In this article, we argue that strong claims about language deficiencies in poor children and their families based on the Hart and Risley study are unwarranted. Further, we argue that the uncritical acceptance of Hart and Risley’s findings is emblematic of a trend among some educators, educational policy makers, and educational researchers to readily embrace a deficit stance that pathologizes the language and culture of poor students and their families (Dudley-Marling, 2007; Foley, 1997). We hope that this critique will help teachers resist “research-based” policies that aim to fi x the language and culture of poor and minority students with whom they work.

Currently, the most cited study detailing the deficiencies of low-income children is that of Hart and Risley (1995). This study has been criticized by language scholars, including in a past issue of Language Arts (Dudley-Marling & Lucas, 2009), although the criticism seems to have had little impact….

Of course, there are many problems with the Hart and Risley study (Dudley-Marlin & Lucas, 2009; Michaels, 2013; Miller & Sperry, 2012). Among the criticisms are the reduction of language to vocabulary knowledge, the extrapolation from six families in one state to all poor children, whatever their familial, cultural, linguistic, and community circumstances, and the lack of a correlation between children’s vocabulary as mea- sured at age 3 and their school performance in third grade (noted by Hart & Risley [1995] themselves, on p. 161). Nonetheless, it is widely assumed that this study illuminates the “deficiencies” of poor children and that these account for school difficulties. This assumption is simply a continuation of societal ideologies linking income, race, and language deficiency that have been part of this country since colonial times (e.g., the views of slaves’ capacities).

And thus the worries Labov (1972) articulated many years ago have come to pass: educators (and researchers and policy makers, I add) view chil- dren through the taken-for-granted lens of language deficiency and, thus, attempt to “repair the child, rather than the school.” One consequence of this is the indiscriminate erasure of children’s language strengths. (pp. 200-201)

Hart and Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children—Google it and in .15 seconds you get over 100,000 hits. Hart and Risley’s book Meaningful Differences (1995) is the most-cited piece of academic work that attempts to explain what goes wrong with poor kids, with grand extrapolations and claims (which you’ll see that I argue are totally unsubstantiated) about how poor children will fare in school and later life—based on their early home experiences with language. The book purports to demonstrate (with what I will call pseudo-scientific elegance) that poor children (in their study six families, all black, all on welfare) are doomed before they enter school because 1) their parents don’t talk to them as much as upper middle class parents (13 upper SES, “professional” families—where the parents were predominantly professors, all white except one); and 2) poor children don’t experience as many “quality” features in the talk with their parents.

Because of the severe methodological flaws in the study, these conclusions are unwarranted. To truly investigate the relationship between quantity of interaction and vocabulary growth, we need at least two completely independent measures — (1) a measure of quantity of interaction such as that used by Hart and Risley, and (2) a measure of vocabulary size such as a vocabulary size test.

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.


Amid growing controversy about the oft‐cited “30‐million‐word gap,” this investigation uses language data from five American communities across the socioeconomic spectrum to test, for the first time, Hart and Risley’s (1995) claim that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than their middle‐class counterparts during the early years of life. The five studies combined ethnographic fieldwork with longitudinal home observations of 42 children (18–48 months) interacting with family members in everyday life contexts. Results do not support Hart and Risley’s claim, reveal substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum, and suggest that definitions of verbal environments that exclude multiple caregivers and bystander talk disproportionately underestimate the number of words to which low‐income children are exposed.

Unlike fatalism in The Walking Dead, World War Z is a zombie narrative offered after the apocalypse, a tale told with a dark optimism since humans have survived the rise of the living dead.

There are lessons in this version as well, particularly about the possibility of an antidote—about choosing to see the world differently in order to make a different world.

Let us put the term “word gap” to rest, permanently, along with the nearly compulsive urge to cite Hart and Risley.

Related and Recommended

Why we need to smash up the concept of the achievement gap in tiny little pieces, Andre Perry

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