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What the "word gap" doesn't tell us about how young children learn language skills

Teacher Diana Enciso works with kindergartner Milagros Ruiz on a Spanish-language exercise with words that start with "R" at George Brown Elementary, a dual-language school in San Bernardino, on Monday morning, May 4, 2015. “The teachers actually have to go around and listen to the kids speak,” says Maribel Lopez-Tyus, the school's principal. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Not long ago, Mabel Guevara went to the park with her six-year-old son, William, who got a bunch of wood chips stuck in his shoes and asked for his mom’s help to get them out.

Guevara, who is from Honduras and had only been in the country four years at this point, wasn’t sure what he was talking about. “Wood chip?” she asked him. “What does that mean?”

William went over both the definition and pronunciation of the term, even referencing homophones to help make the connection.

“He told me, ‘I can help you,’ Guevara remembers. “’Do you remember when I said, I want chips [the food]?’ I said, ‘Yes!’” So he told her: “Now you need to say: wood chips. That’s the word you need to say.’”

Guevara shared this story with researcher Karisa Peer recently. Upon the story’s completion, Peer threw her arms in the air and exclaimed, “Exactly!”

Peer had previously spent 10 months observing and interviewing Latina mothers similar to Guevara as part of her research for her dissertation at the University of California – Los Angeles. She found that in homes where kids and parents were learning English together, kids often developed specialized higher-level language skills, like the ability to translate or make linguistic connections for their parents.

And that these skills are overlooked in more mainstream educational pedagogy that Peer says too often view “immigrant students and students from marginalized communities in very deficit-based ways,” rather than focusing on students' strengths. 

She’s talking principally about the so-called “word gap” — the theory that upper-income kids are exposed to more words than lower-income kids are, and so are better prepared for school and life and, generally, operate at a higher cognitive level.

That theory is rooted in Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s study from the 1980s, which concluded that by the age of four, a poor child has heard 30 million fewer words than a rich one. More recently, researchers at U.C. Berkeley found that Mexican-American toddlers lag behind their white peers in pre-literacy and oral language skills by the age of two.

The debate surrounding the word gap is long and complex; some researchers take issue with its methodology, others with its tone that some see as patronizing, forcing middle-class values on low-income parents.

Peer’s specific issue is that the word gap emphasizes quantity over quality.

“Rather than looking at how many words a student knows, we should be looking at how they use them—we should be looking at the who, what, when, why and how, because just knowing words doesn’t necessarily equate to comprehension,” she said. “We need to look at the rich ways that [kids of immigrants] actually utilizing words and word counts can’t do that, they simply can’t do that.”

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a language acquisition expert at Temple University, agrees that quality matters more than quantity, so much so that she developed the term “conversational duet” to emphasize how important the back and forth is in conversations with little ones. “You can’t sing it alone,” she says. “You can only sing it together."

But Hirsh-Pasek also thinks the discussion should be less about comparing cultures and more about finding “the magic ingredient” in language acquisition and then seeing “how that varies within culture.”

“The differences that have been reported that are always about the low income vs the middle income— while things will trend in that direction, it’s a slightly more complicated more picture,” she said. “It’s really not about middle, upper, lower — it’s really about how parents interact with kids.”

In her research, one thing was very clear. “Those who did a better job of creating a conversation or the conversational duet have kids who are going to fare better a year later, and what are they going to fare better in? Language!” she said. “You’re going to be able to predict the course of their future as they stand in the doorstep of formal schooling.”

In other words, it seems less important that kids like William hear words like "wood chips" lots of times, and more important that he talk about them with a parent who wants to listen and talk all about them, together.