Meaningful Differences book cover.

In the mid-1960s, Betty Hart was a graduate student in child development working at a preschool in Kansas City, Kansas. The preschool was for children who mostly came from the troubled housing projects nearby. Hart’s task was to teach these kids how to speak like the children of her professors at the University of Kansas.


For years, she and university professor Todd Risley worked tirelessly toward this goal, doing everything they could think of to expand the vocabularies of these 4-year-olds. The idea was that if the kids could speak with the fluency of their wealthier peers across town, they might go on to similar academic achievements.


But success was elusive. “We tried everything,” Hart says. “Everything we could. … We couldn’t do it.”


The problem, they realized, was that they weren’t getting to the kids early enough. Which led to this question: If age 4 was too late, when was early enough?


Starting in 1982, they recorded, every month for 2 1/2 years, 1 hour of everything said between parent and child in 42 different families that they categorised as welfare, working class or professional. They then spent 10 years transcribing the tapes onto 30,000 pages which was then entered into a computer for analysis.
One reviewer described their findings as heartbreaking. By the age of 3, the spoken vocabulary of the best off 3 year olds was greater than that of the parents of the worst off 3 years olds. The researchers calculated that the best off children were hearing 8 million more words spoken per year than their worse off peers.


Frequency matters. They found that frequency mattered more than race, ethnicity, gender or birth order. This may not surprise people because it may fit with every day experience but it does fly in the face of some important and often cited theories of language acquisition. For example, Noam Chomsky (See ‘Aspects of the Theory of Syntax’, 1965) and Steven Pinker (See ‘The Language Instinct’, 1994) would argue that cognitive development, including language acquisition is genetically programmed. Hart and Risley didn’t dismiss the role that genetics can play but found that nurture beats nature in this particular contest.


Their second discovery was that language experience was tightly linked to outcomes. The amount of parent talk accounted for all the correlation between socioeconomic status / race and the verbal intellectual accomplishments of all 42 of the children in their study.


Their third discovery was that all parents used the same number of imperatives, prohibitions and questions. They referred to this as ‘business talk’. Referring to the business of raising and nurturing a child. The style of non-business talk: feelings, plans, activities, past events – topics that required an expansion of vocabulary did not vary but the quantity did. They went as far as to say that the complexity of this talk increased automatically as frequency of exchange led to increased topics of exchange.


By the age of 3 all children were talking but never more than the amount that their parents were talking. The same went for the variety of the talk, it developed but then levelled off at the level of their parents.


The outcome of their study was two-fold: first there is less need than expected to teach parents to talk differently or to change their style of interacting and more of a need for programmes that help parents talk more frequently to their children. Secondly, the most important evaluative criterion for evaluating very young children should be the amount of talking that is going on between children and their caregivers.


The 60′s was a time of enthusiasm for the possibilities of nurture over nature and that is the context in which the authors’ work began. By the time they started collecting and analysing the data from this body of work in the 80′s this enthusiasm had waned and in its place was the thinking that there was no point in trying to improve the lot of some social classes. This was a failure of policy, not a failure of science as most scientists came to conclude that the role of nature vs nurture was about fifty fifty.


Since 1965, US governments have prescribed early interventions such as ‘Head Start’. Head Start informed our ‘Sure Start’ programme here in the UK. Head Start deals with the development of the ‘whole child’, not just school readiness.


A Head Start impact study published in 2010 showed that although Head Start participants did better on every measure than the rest of their cohort, the difference had disappeared by the end of grade 1.  Head Start was created because studies in the 60′s showed that early childhood education could make a difference in the long term. Critics of the programme suggest that the problem came in the way that the programme was scaled up and that Head Start which was not an education programme but part of the War on Poverty, became more about job creation than early childhood development.


The conclusions of the 2010 Head Start study fit with the findings in this book:


“By the time children are 3 years old, even intensive intervention cannot (statistically) make up for the differences in the amount of [language] experience children have received from their parents.”


To read more about the work cited in this article, please follow the links below.


Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children

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The Social World of Children Learning to Talk

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Aspects of the Theory of Syntax

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The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (Penguin Science)

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