Why Should Parents Worry about Young Children’s Vocabulary?

Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the one of the most cited study on early children development (5700 times!) observed welfare (low-income) families and more affluent (professional) families.

They wanted to find out to what extent daily conversations influenced American children’s vocabulary development. Rather unsurprisingly, they discovered that parents in disadvantaged families provided children with less exposure to language and interactions than parents in more more affluent homes (middle and high socioeconomic status).

At age 3 children in high-income, professional families were exposed to 30 million more words than children from poorer families. Some lucky children from their birth were swimming in ocean of words, some other children were clearly ‘lexically’ starving. In a consequence, at age 3 children from low-income families knew 400 words, whereas children from more advantaged families 800-1200 words.  Surprisingly, these early differences did not close when children entered schools but actually widened. Children who knew more words at age 3 were also able to learn new words much quicker.

Parents can learn from this study that:

  • quantity and quality of conversation with children before they start school matters 
  • parents are not only children’s first teachers, but  in fact the most important teachers
  • the early vocabulary gaps rarely close when children enter school, they usually grow bigger
  • children with better developed vocabulary will build new vocabulary quicker
  • absence of vocabulary might be the most important factor preventing children from academic success (e.g. due to reading comprehension problems)
  • children in working class families are at particular risk of underdeveloped vocabulary

This is important study for all parents, but in particular for parents of bilingual children. If monolingual American children are affected by vocabulary gaps, it does not surprise that the issue is even more pronounced among English languages learners. Parents of English languages learners are likely to provide children with less exposure to language and rich vocabulary not only due to socioeconomic factors  but also due to division of exposure between home language and English. Also lower quality of input usually provided by non-native parents might negatively affect children’s vocabulary.

Problems related to the interpretation of the study:

In recent years, the issue of developing children’s vocabulary has become a hot topic in education and sometimes presented as a ‘panacea’ for  all educational problems. Generally, educators suggest that parents should increase the amount talk and conversations with children at home to prevent the vocabulary gaps. However, there are several problems related to this suggestion:

  • increasing quantity of talk does not go together with  increasing quality of talk and in fact the quality might matter even more than quantity for vocabulary development
  • changing the way parents talk to children is difficult (parents cannot become out of sudden more eloquent, more talkative etc.)
  • parents might not have knowledge, education or skills to ask children challenging questions, initiate interesting conversations etc.
  • even parents form professional families might not have time or personalities to provide children with frequent conversations 
  • increasing quantity and quality of talk is particularly difficult in minority families
  • shall we actually ask low-income parents to imitate middle-class parents’ behaviour?
  • children from low-SES have their own strength which we should not ignored, they often are ‘street smart’ rather than ‘school smart’ despite weaker vocabulary.

Recently even in  ‘Orange Is the New Black’ – an American comedy – drama on Netflix  a female prisoner and her boyfriend ‘discussed’ and slightly misinterpreted Hart and Risley’s study:

Boy, you better get outta here.
You have to talk to her, like, all the time.
There’s all these studies that say that if if you don’t talk to the baby, they end up, like, fucked by the time they’re five.
Talk to her.
Sing to her.
You got to promise me, okay? 

Even if the boyfriend did listen and started to talk to the child more frequently, it is clear that his ‘talking’ would not necessarily translate into  child’s better developed vocabulary due to rather low quality of lexical input,


I believe that developing children’s vocabulary is important for several reasons:

  • vocabulary is the best predictor of reading comprehension (both for monolingual and bilingual children)
  • teaching vocabulary is tantamount to developing children’s conceptual knowledge (knowledge behind words which children need for reading and learning)
  • well-developed reading comprehension skills are more important than ever for children’s educational success and future employment

I also believe that it is possible to empower low-income parents with strategies and materials overcoming low-quality of their own lexical input, potential gaps in knowledge or education. In the same way, it is  possible to provide parents of English language learners with strategies and materials bridging home language and English.

However, parents should be aware that:

  • developing vocabulary is a long-term effort
  • it requires setting expectations  high in regard to the child’s language development
  • incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition means that they will be failures and children should not be expected to act as ‘word sponges’
  • it is important to have long-term plan and road-map of lexical enrichment to succeed ​

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Paul H Brookes Publishing.