Fighting the Word Gap

Fighting the Word Gap

— From the pages of FLL#37

Thirty million is a big number; it’s a lot of money, a lot of people, a lot of anything. Picture this number in terms of a child’s vocabulary. Imagine if your child heard thirty million less words before the age of three than the child sitting next to them in school. Imagine how that would affect their vocabulary. Research shows that up to 98% of words used by a three-year-old are directly derived from their parent’s vocabulary. They also found that the number of words these children learned varied greatly among socio-economic lines, with children from professional families hearing approximately 2,153 words per hour, children from working class families hearing 1,251 words per hour, and children from families on welfare hearing only 616 words per hour, which adds up to 30 million less words over a child’s first three years of life.

In follow-up studies of these same children in third grade, researchers found that the words learned by age three were highly indicative of school performance, as the children who learned less words scored significantly lower on vocabulary, language development, and reading comprehension than their more affluent peers who heard more words early on. It has been found that the single best predictor of a child’s academic success is the quality and quantity of the words they hear in their first three years. The great disparity in words heard before the age of three, termed the “Word Gap,” is affecting school age children. The divide just continues to grow as children grow older.

As a pediatric occupational therapist working with babies and young children, I see the frustration of third graders who struggle to learn to read while their more affluent peers excel without issue. I see the vast uneven playing field on which children enter kindergarten, some reading full sentences while others cannot read their own names. The bottom line: talk to your babies and young children! Spread the word; human interaction with babies is critical for their language and literacy skills later on. A lot of people simply don’t see the point in talking to babies. Babies don’t talk back, nor do they appear to understand, but they are listening and taking it all in.

Talking to your baby might sound obvious, but parents may be missing valuable opportunities to engage with their babies. Here are some practical ways of interacting with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers: Start before birth by reading, singing, and talking to the baby in utero. As soon as your baby is born, talk to the baby as if they are part of the conversation, pausing when they would respond, then answering. Studies show that babies understand the pause and flow of conversation as early as three weeks old. Continue to read books, sing songs, recite nursery rhymes and poems, engage in finger plays, and talk to your baby all day. Narrate what you are doing while you cook, clean, dress, or bathe your baby. Consciously speak in full sentences with detail. Talk about everything you see as you are driving in the car, walking in the park or looking out the window with them. When possible, get face to face with your baby so you can look them in the eye as you have conversations and use a lot of facial expression to keep babies engaged. You will notice they are listening when they maintain eye contact and stop sucking on their pacifier.

Spread the word to other parents about the Word Gap, and together we can give more babies everywhere the best start possible.

Aimee Ketchum is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and a Certified Newborn Massage Instructor and Owner of Aimee’s Babies, LLC. She worked for many years with school-age children with developmental delays and found that poor coordination, poor reading skills, and poor handwriting were the result of missed or under-developed milestones in the child’s first year of life. She made it her mission to help by combining her research in early childhood development with her experience in working with children. The Aimee’s Babies program is currently helping new parents around the world provide the best possible start to a lifetime of new beginnings. Please visit to check out her baby massage DVD and iPhone apps.