Wednesday, November 12, 2014

30 Million Word Gap Debunked! Where to start?

Have you ever had a morning where you are reading through the news and your life gets tilted off kilter in a way that makes your heart skip?

That happened to me this morning.  As some of you may know, I am a big proponent of a study done by Betty Hart and Todd Risely back in the 1960's.  What this research showed is that in general, students who come from households where they hear a paucity of language, begin school hearing 30 million fewer uses of language.  Hart and Risely talk about how this difference has far reaching effects in formal education.

I use this study as a jumping off place, and combine these findings with the wealth of research and educational writings that can be found about language acquisition, neurological research, and ongoing research in comprehension.  I am always looking for information to help me better understand, teach and examine language in relation to storytelling.

Storytelling and the Brain

This morning I encountered an article that declared that Hart and Risely's study blames poor parents for their children's lack of academic success, and that the whole of the work was debunked by a pair of people by the name of Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas  I was stunned, especially since I'd never heard anything about this.

So, I went over to read the article that debunked Hart and Risely's work.

Needless to say, the article does not debunk the work.  You can read it here.  

Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas did not conduct any research that yielded different results.  No, what they did was  complain about the work and say that it doesn't say what Hart and Risely claim it says.

What the article mainly argues is that Hart and Risely state their language findings in terms of deficits.  

The article's main complaint is that Hart and Risely looked at the research, and spoke of the language findings in terms of deficits and deficiencies instead of talking about differences, and saying that these differences were just...different, not inherently bad.  

The onus should be taken off of the parents, because their color and or socio-economic status should not play into whether or not their children are successful at school.

They correctly pointed out that Hart and Risely connected these deficiencies with socio-economic statuses, ethnic origins, and poverty.

They take issue with the sample size in the study.  

They point out that Hart and Risely were white middle class educated people, and conclude that they had biases when dealing with black, poor and working class families.

Allowing for all of these problems, I come back to a question.  

Where is the research that shows that Hart and Risely were completely and utterly wrong in what they discovered?  

We can debate about what it means, and how it frames what we know about people.   

We can talk about the political ramifications of what we wish they would have said, and how we wish they would have presented their findings.

We can expound about our own social and contextual beliefs about race, poverty and parental involvement.

What nobody has done as of yet is conduct some kind of research that gives us a different understanding of how this whole process works.

The basic assertions made by Dudley-Marling and Lucas are these: 

We should not think about differences in language as deficits.  This suggests that there is a right or standard way, and that poor people or minorities do not live up to that standard.

The research blames the parents for the success or failure of their children.

They state that it is the role of the teacher to expose children to language and concepts, not the parents.  Teachers must teach!  That is what school is for.  

I do not disagree with the idea that our educational system should be set up to deal with the disparities of language that children have when they arrive at the first day of school.  I whole heartedly agree.    

My complaint is that we don't do it.  Period. 

I will continue to talk about Hart and Risely's work.  

I will definitely add Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas's dissent, but I will be clear about pointing out that despite taking issue with Hart and Risely's findings, they have never done any actual research into this themselves.

I will continue to urge teachers to work on bulking up vocabulary, language and visual imagery.  

So, after doing a great deal of reading and linking to things and considering the arguments, my world didn't change nearly as much as I thought it would.  

Show me the research that proves that there are different factors that go into language acquisition, and I will happily reassess all of it.  It certainly wouldn't be the first time.

Happy Educating!


  1. Donna, Regardless of the root of the language acquisition problem, helping adult caregivers use larger vocabularies with children would be extremely helpful. Most new parents or at least new mothers have contact with health care providers during pregnancy and the baby's early days. Could this contact be expanded to include beneficial ways to talk with children (reading, telling stories, explaining, etc.)?

    1. I believe you are correct. I think that using storytelling even with very young children is an excellent way to improve vocabulary. What is sort of frustrating about the attacks on this study is that people have extrapolated things out of this work, and made claims about it that the original study doesn't even try to make. There is no downside, as far as I can see, to helping people improve language and reading through the use of improving vocabulary and being exposed to a greater breadth of linguistic expression.

  2. I think this blogger spells out why should at least question the study: I fall more into this camp.

  3. Perhaps this articulates the problems with the whole counting words thing better: