Talking the talk: doesn’t everybody?

How many times have you heard it? “It’s a parent’s job to see that children are ready for kindergarten.Oh, if all parents only could!

A lot of talk goes on between average parents and typical infants and toddlers in everyday home life.

“Almost everything [children] learn comes from their families, to whom society has assigned the task of socializing children.” Dr. Betty Hart and her colleague, Dr. Todd R. Risley, spent their careers looking at how children develop vocabulary and the impact of those vocabularies on their future success. What they found surprised even them.

The 3-year-old children from families on welfare not only had smaller vocabularies than children of the same age in professional families, but they were also adding words more slowly. Not only that, but the number of words a 3-year-old used was predictive of measures of language skill at age 9-10. 

The average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour)!

The amount of family talk is a characteristic of low and high social class.

To change these family subcultures, Hart and Risley determined, it is necessary to teach parents how to provide babies with activities and conversation so they accumulate as much experience and “social dance” practice as their advantaged peers—hour after hour, day after day, month after month from the very beginning.

Betty Hart died last month at 85.