Updated: Apr 8
I admit it. I fell for it too. I read an article a few years ago (Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children) that spoke about the now infamous (my opinion) research results of the 30-million word gap between children of poverty, more specifically Black children in poverty, and those who are of the middle class.
At the time I read this piece of research, that clearly had taken and continues to take America by storm, (NPR, Teaching Young Children) I was working as a speech-language pathologist in Brooklyn, NY with my mostly Black and [Latinx] kids. Because I was 1) ignorant to language differences, 2) ignorant to the significance of understanding researchers’ backgrounds and biases, and 3) ignorant to believing that what’s stated in such prestigious newspapers is “truth”, I sadly began to think that perhaps my kids were coming to school language deprived.
I’m so happy I was wrong.
Here are just a few key points I’d like to make about this misleading, inaccurate “30-million word gap.”
1) The research study was conducted in the 1960s. The protocol they used to assess language progress was the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and, having been created in 1959* (this is before language differences were really being paid attention to), was more than likely standardized on White middle-class norms. This means the answers that would be judged correct were vocabulary that was representative of White middle-class culture. Is it really fair to judge someone on not knowing someone else’s background knowledge? Can you imagine taking a vocabulary test based on information and language from another culture and then when you “fail” you are given the label “language deprived?”
2) The researchers are White middle/upper-middle class. They came into their study looking to compare the language of the middle-class children with the children who lived in poverty. They came in using MAE as the standard and if the language of the other children [and communication of the parents] did not match-up to MAE [standards], then it was a deficiency. They did not report this as a difference, as it should have been.
3) There were 6 families from poverty (all of them Black) whose language was compared to the other classes, especially the professional White upper/middle class. Six. It is from these six families that we have perpetuated the “30 million WORD GAP” for the past 50 plus years. Six families. And, unfortunately, it is misleading to assume that these six families represent all families living in poverty. Like all populations, families in poverty are a heterogeneous population, and to make this generalization is dangerous and discouraging to say the least.
4) Why is it that other very prominent researchers have critiqued the Hart and Risley study, yet their articles have not been found in such places as the New York Times or the Huffington Post? Why do we, as a society, continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes and deficit perspectives? It’s like we only want to read articles that prove to us what the masses already think, “Yep, poor Black children don’t know how to speak English properly, poor Black people are illiterate, and look, even the research shows it’s true.”
I hope that everyone who chooses to read articles about the 30-million word gap will also read articles by Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas, (Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children); Dudley-Marling, (Return of the Deficit), and Sarah Michaels (Deja Vu All Over Again).
As a beginning researcher, I am going to take the lessons I’ve learned from Hart & Risley and try my best to not perpetuate the deficit perspective and always state my positionality. I see first-hand the damage that is done when people take the unchallenged and biased research of scholars as gospel, especially when reporting on non-mainstream populations.
To learn more about the different ways families may speak english, see my resource Flavors of English.