1.4 million “word gap” found in some preschoolers
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1.4 million “word gap” found in some preschoolers

by Freya Lucas

April 05, 2019

Researchers from The Ohio State University have found that young children who have five books read to them a day enter school having heard around 1.4 million more words than children who are never read to.


The “million word gap”, researchers believe, could be one key in explaining differences in vocabulary and reading development, and will be of interest to the Australian early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector in the wake of recent Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) results, indicating one in five children begin school developmentally vulnerable in one or more domains.


While five books may be a somewhat ambitious goal, researchers said that even one book a day will make a difference, with children who are read to once per day hearing about 290,000 more words by age five than those who don’t regularly read books with a parent or caregiver.


Lead researcher, Jessica Logan, said that children who hear more vocabulary words are “going to be better prepared to see those same words in print when they enter school”, and, as a result, be more likely to pick up reading skills “quickly and easily”


The “million word gap” research was inspired, Ms Logan said, by previous research she had conducted, which found that one in four children in a national sample taken were never read to, with a similar number of children in the cohort read to only once or twice per week.


She found the results “somewhat shocking” and wanted to further investigate what the flow on effect for children was, from lack of exposure to being read to in the years before school.


As part of the study, Ms Logan and her colleagues worked with Columbus Metropolitan Library, compiling a list of the 100 most circulated books for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. From the list, Ms Logan and her team randomly selected 60 books, and counted how many words were in each book.


Books targeted to infants and toddlers had an average of 140 words, while books for preschool children averaged 228. Using that information, the research team calculated the “word gap”, finding that children who were:


  • Never read to heard 4,662 words in the years before school


  • Read to once or twice a week heard 63,570 words in the years before school


  • Read to three to five times a week heard 169,520 words in the years before school


  • Read to daily heard 296,660 words in the years before school


  • Read to five times a day heard 1,483,300 words in the years before school


Discussing the results, Ms Logan said the word gap “of more than one million words between children raised in a literacy rich environment and those who were never read to is striking”


The work has been compared to a somewhat controversial study from 1992, which suggested that children growing up in poverty hear about 30 million fewer words in conversation than children from more advantaged backgrounds.


Ms Logan was keen to emphasise that the vocabulary word gap study is different from the conversational word gap study, and may have different implications for children, saying “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 gave the example of a children’s book about penguins in Antarctica, which would introduce words and concepts unlikely to come up in day to day conversation, with parents often talking about the book they are reading, or adding in elements to the story if it had been read many times, making the million word gap “a conservative estimate.”


The extra conversation, in the context of revisiting themes from read material, or providing ‘extra-textual’ talk is likely to reinforce the new vocabulary words children are hearing, and may introduce new words to the child.


“Exposure to vocabulary is good for all children. Parents can access books that are appropriate for their child at the local library, free of charge” Ms Logan said.


The study appears online in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, and will be published in a future print edition.

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