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Asked About Race, Biden Talked Record Players. Here’s a Quick Primer on the ‘Word Gap’

By Evie Blad — September 13, 2019 6 min read
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Former Vice President Joe Biden sparked some eyebrow-raises among viewers of Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate when, in a rambling answer to a question about race, he mentioned record players and the number of words a young child hears at home.

Biden’s response highlights debated research about the “word gap” that will be familiar to many early education advocates. It also touched on broader issues: poverty, the out-of-school factors that affect learning, and the way policymakers discuss the role parents—and particularly parents of color—play in their children’s development.

So what’s the word gap? And how did it make its way onto a presidential debate stage? Here’s a quick primer.

and Record Players

Biden’s discussion of education came in a bit of a circuitous answer. After asking several candidates questions about K-12 education and charter schools, ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis asked Biden about race and the comments he made in a 1975 interview on school desegregation efforts.

“I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” Biden said in that interview, in a quote Davis read onstage. “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

In light of those 40-year-old comments, Davis asked Biden, “what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”

Despite his past efforts to oppose “busing” for school integration, Biden said Thursday that he had a history of confronting “institutional segregation,” including residential red-lining and access to bank loans.

Then he pivoted to education, citing his education plan, which calls for tripling Title I, the federal funds targeted at schools with high enrollments of students from low-income homes. That plan also calls for an expansion of pre-kindergarten and early home visiting programs, which are designed to promote healthy development before a child enrolls in school. And then he mentioned the number of words children hear at home: Teachers “have every problem coming to them” at school, he said.

“We have [to] make sure that every single child does, in fact, [we need to] have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school... We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children,” Biden said.

“It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t—they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television, excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”

4 Million Words?

A widely cited 1992 study said that children from low-income families will hear 30 million fewer words than their peers from higher income homes by the time they turn 3. In the years since, other researchers have questioned that finding, saying the number may be less than 4 million, the number Biden cited on the stage.

To draw their original conclusion, researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley tracked 42 infants just learning to talk, and their families. Researchers observed the families for an hour a month from the time the children were about 8 months old until they turned 3. On average, children from professional families heard more than 2,150 words an hour, they concluded. Those in working-class families heard about 1,250 words. Children in families on welfare heard little more than 600 words an hour. Children with professional parents also heard more unique words, the study concluded.

“That statistic has led to a generation of vocabulary-centered interventions to close achievement gaps, including the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative, and many others,” Sarah Sparks wrote in Education Week in 2015. Those interventions weren’t about record players though. Most centered on encouraging parents to read and speak with young children in thoughtful ways.

But recently, some researchers have thrown cold water on enthusiasm about the “word-gap” finding. And some have said the statistic has been used to subtly blame poor parents, rather than failing schools, for their children’s academic struggles. Among the concerns:

  • The word gap study relied on a relatively small sample size of families to draw some pretty big conclusions, as NPR pointed out last year.
  • Some researchers have questioned the sampling methodology Hart and Risley used to make their estimates. The lower income families, who were largely black, may have been more quieter around the researchers than the higher income families, who were largely white, because of discomfort, they speculated.
  • In a study published in 2019, researchers from three universities found they could not replicate the original 30 million words finding. They found “substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum,” and they said more attention should be paid to the role caregivers and overheard conversations with bystanders play in a young child’s language exposure. Some children from lower-income families even had an advantage when those factors were taken into account, the study found.

The Role of Parents

It’s not that speaking to and reading with children doesn’t matter, critics of the word gap research say. But those limited findings shouldn’t be used to paint entire demographic groups with a broad brush, and they shouldn’t be used to excuse shortcomings in under resourced schools.

And some other researchers have argued that people who shape policy shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss word gap research, or greater questions about exposure to speech, because language and literacy are so key to academic achievement. Those researchers also question the value of overheard adult speech, which they say is less meaningful than speaking directly to a child.

Biden does propose addressing larger school quality issues, he says, by boosting Title I funding. He says that could be used to raise teacher pay, to improve curriculum, and to fill resource gaps between rich and poor schools. His education plan calls for expanding voluntary home visiting programs under the Affordable Care Act (a plan echoed by fellow candidate and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet).

Through those programs, “health and child development specialists make consistent, scheduled visits to help parents through the critical early stage of parenting,” Biden’s plan says. “Families may receive coaching on preventive health and prenatal practices, learn how to care for their babies and about important child development milestones and behaviors, receive breastfeeding support, get connected to employment and child care, and receive general support in navigating the often-stressful early stages of parenthood.”

In other words, the call for early home visiting is about much more than those 4 million words.

But because Biden’s discussion of home visiting and the word gap followed a question about the legacy of slavery, some saw it as promoting harmful ideas about black families. And some viewed the comment as blaming parents for inequality instead of acknowleding broader systemic factors that can have lasting effects.

Photo: Getty Images

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