Sofía Bahena, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June-July 2016

In researching language development and acquisition, it is critical to value the unique assets that students bring to the classroom. Otherwise, research conclusions can lead to years of policy and practice that is ineffective or even detrimental to students and communities.

In a much-cited study, Hart & Risley (1995, 2003) introduced the so-called “word gap,” referring to one of their most popular conclusions in which they estimate that, by the time children enter school at age 3, there would be a 30 million gap in words heard, on average, between children of poor parents and children of professional parents. In their study, Hart & Risley observed 42 families from Kansas City, Mo., over the course of two and a half years for an hour each month. Thirteen of those families were considered to be of upper socio-economic status (SES), 10 families were middle SES, 13 families were lower SES, and six families were on welfare at the time of the study. Children were 7 months to 9 months old when the study began and were followed through the age of 3.

Hart & Risley contend that poverty has a deleterious impact on early vocabulary growth, the quality of verbal interactions, and subsequently on later educational outcomes. In more recent years, other researchers have explored similar questions of language acquisition by immigrant, low-income, families (e.g., Fernald, et al., 2013; Fuller, et al., 2015).

In the two decades since Hart & Risley’s original publication (1995), it has continued to receive mass media attention (e.g., Hotchkiss, 2015; Shenk, 2010; Sparks, 2015) and resulted in numerous local initiatives across the country (Hotchkiss, 2015; Pierce, 2016). Its findings have further been extrapolated to imply that this early “word gap” can have long-term educational implications, including success in high school (e.g., Bellafante, 2012).

Yet several experts in the education and linguistics field have raised concerns about the study’s measures, data collection, theoretical basis, conclusions, and sampling.

Critiques of the Hart & Risley Study – Vocabulary Measures

Critiques of the measures relate to the internal validity of the vocabulary measure and cultural blind spots in coding the data. In a review of their book, Nation (n.d.) argues that Hart & Risley use the quantity of language children are exposed to as a measure of the children’s vocabulary size. Yet, he continues, “Cumulative counting of word types in a series of limited language samples is not the way to measure vocabulary growth” (Nation, n.d.).

Dudley-Marling & Lucas (2009) similarly argue that inferring vocabulary size from the differences in language heard is overstated and unwarranted: “What is particularly striking about Hart & Risley’s data analysis is their willingness to make strong, evaluative claims about the quality of the language parents directed to their children” (p. 363).

Michaels (2013) points out that the six quality features used by Hart & Risley to code the data “have to do with politeness and cultural preferences, based on middle-class, academic researchers’ impressions that their features result in higher quality interactions” (p. 26). It is therefore unsurprising to find a relationship between socio-economic status and the “quality” of language used in the participants’ homes. Such coding ignores cultural differences.

Michaels further explains, “People from different cultures talk differently to infants, and no one approach has been shown to be cognitively superior to another in helping children acquire their native language or grow up to be smart” (Michaels, 2013, p. 29). Indeed, she continues, upper-class American families are unusual, compared to other cultures, in the how they converse with their infants.

Critiques of the Hart & Risley Study – Data Collection

Orellana (2015) points out that the words in Hart & Risley’s study were counted by researchers and not by ethnographers, who tend to focus on building rapport. By not using a method that is attuned to this dynamic, the study runs the risk of not accounting how families, particularly those from low socio-economic status, may change their behaviors while being observed.

Dudley-Marling & Lucas (2009) argue that there is a significant body of research in anthropology, linguistics and psychology documenting the effect that observers have on participant behaviors, especially when the observers are considered “outsiders.” Although Hart & Risley (1995) say that “over time the observer tended to fade into the furniture” (p. 35), the observers’ positionality was not directly addressed.

Critiques of the Hart & Risley Study – Theoretical Framework

That the observers’ reflections of their own potential biases were not addressed explicitly is particularly problematic given the study’s lack of theoretical framework. Dudley-Marling & Lucas (2009) pose that Hart & Risley “fail to situate their study within an explicit theory of language or culture” (p. 366). By not doing so, they explain, Hart & Risley did not support their conclusions that families living in poverty share a common language or culture. Given that their conclusions center around socio-economic status, this omission puts into question the interpretation of their findings.

As Nation (n.d.) details, there may have been alternative hypotheses, including that lower socio-economic parents prefer to talk less and may be more reserved when being watched, and they could differ in other relevant ways, such as the number of children in the family and the amount of work they have to do.

Critiques of the Hart & Risley Study – Conclusions Drawn

In their study, Hart & Risley followed-up with 29 of the 42 families when the child was in third grade. They find a strong correlation between vocabulary-related measures in third grade and the early vocabulary measures gathered during the original study. Hart & Risley further conclude that early vocabulary size had a significant impact on later academic outcomes generally.

However, Michaels (2013) suggests that “there is no evidence that vocabulary size correlates with ability to reason with evidence, interpret others, or think abstractly” (p. 27). She further points out that Hart & Risley themselves find no correlations between language patterns and third grade academic outcomes in reading, writing, spelling, verbal and nonverbal reasoning, or IQ (see Hart & Risley, 1995, p. 161, 173) – only measures specifically related to language.

Critiques of the Hart & Risley Study – Sampling

Furthermore, the differences identified by Hart & Risley – findings that have sprouted the multiple initiatives, foundations and research – have been generalized to the overall low-income population based on the observation of only six families on welfare from Kansas City, all of whom were identified as Black.

As Dudley-Marling & Lucas (2009) point out from 2003 Census data, “Only 25 percent of the 33 million Americans living below the poverty line are Black” (p. 364). To say that this sample is representative of the general population living in poverty would be a gross overstatement.

Persistent Deficit Bias

So why have these findings remained popular despite scholarly critiques? Flores & Rosa (2015) propose the term raciolinguistic ideologies to describe the conflation of “certain racialized bodies with linguistic deficiency unrelated to any objective linguistic practices” (p. 150). In this way, even if unconscious, the bias of the researchers could have informed the conclusions of Hart & Risley’s findings, especially if there was no explicit introspective process to examine their own positionality.

Flores & Rosa explain that approaches to language education tend to position minoritized students’ language use and development as a “racial Other.” In the Hart & Risley study, there also is a conflation of race and class, given that all six families receiving welfare services were Black. These, then, are two layers of bias that further frame the study, and others like it, within a deficit framework that views minority and low-income families as lacking.

An Asset-Based Alternative

An alternative to a deficit perspective is an asset-based approach. Flores & Rosa (2015) note that the “goal of additive approaches is to valorize students’ diverse linguistic repertoires by positioning their skills in languages other than standard English as valuable classroom assets to be built on rather than handicaps to be overcome” (p. 153).

In an earlier post, Flores (2013) offers a language socialization framework as a way to compare the language differences – not deficiencies – across income levels. Instead of valuing one type of practice over another, the starting point thus focuses not on what needs to be “fixed” and instead on how to draw connections between students’ home language practices and what is needed to succeed in the school setting.

Dudley-Marling (2014) has expressed doubt in efficacy of scholarly critiques to temper the deficit language found in public rhetoric; instead, he proposes that scholarly work highlighting students’ competencies when “they are engaged in thoughtful, engaging curricula” – a “high-expectation curriculum” (Dudley-Marling & Michaels, 2012) – as a more effective way to counter deficit perspectives.

Access to high quality curriculum and acknowledging the “word wealth” found in minority and low-income communities (Orellana, 2015) is a more promising start to addressing the educational inequities found in U.S. public schools (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010; Kamenetz, 2016).


Bellafante, G.  “Before a Test, A Poverty of Words,” New York Times (October 5, 2012) MB1.

Dudley-Marling, C.  “Author Curt Dudley-Marling Continues the Conversation on Deficit Thinking and the Pathologizing of Children, Their Parents, and Their Community,” Journal of Educational Controversy Blog (2014).

Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K.  “Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children,” Language Arts (2009) 86 (5), 362-370.

Dudley-Marling, C., & Michaels, S. High-expectation Curricula: Helping All Students Succeed with Powerful Learning (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, 2012).

Fernald, A., & V.A., Marchman, A. Weisleder. “SES Differences in Language Processing Skill and Vocabulary Are Evident at 18 Months,” Developmental Science (2013) 16(2), 234-248.

Flores, N.  “Unpacking the So-called Language Gap [Web blog post],” The Educational Linguist (2013).

Flores, N., & J. Rosa. “Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education,” Harvard Educational Review (2015) 85(2), 149-171.

Fuller, B., Bein, E. Kim, Y., Rabe-Hesketh, S.  “Differing Cognitive Trajectories of Mexican American Toddlers: The Role of Class, Nativity, and Maternal Practices,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Science (2015).1-31.

Hart, B. & T.R. Risley. “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” American Educator (2003, Spring). 4-9.

Hart, B. & T. Risley. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 1995).

Hotchkiss, M. “Baby Talk: Looking Inside Young Minds for Clues to Early Learning,” News at Princeton (2015).

Kamenetz, A. The Civil Rights Problem in U.S. Schools: 10 New Numbers. NPRed. National Public Radio (2016).

Michaels, S. “Commentary – Déjà Vu All Over Again: What’s Wrong With Hart & Risley and a “Linguistic Deficit” Framework in Early Childhood Education?” LEARNing Landscapes (2013) 7(1), 23-41.

Nation, I.S.P. (n.d). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. A Brief Critique of Hart, B. & Risley, T.  (Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 1995).

Orellana, M.F.  “A Different Kind of Word Gap,” Huffington Post (May 19, 2016).

Pierce, D. “Closing the 30M Word Gap: Reading Programs Work to Cancel the Effects of Poverty,” eSchool News (March-April 2016).19(1), 1, 16-17, 43.

Robledo Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman. Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Sanchez, C. (Narrator). “Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding the Achievement Gap” [radio broadcast episode], in All Things Considered (Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio, April 7, 2015).

Shenk, D. “The 32-Million Word Gap: An Excerpt from Our Correspondent’s New Book on Where Intelligence Comes From – And Why Exposure to Words as a Child Matters,” The Atlantic (March 9, 2010).

Sparks, S.D.  “Key to Vocabulary Gap is Quality of Conversation, Not Dearth of Words,” EdWeek (April 21, 2015).

Watanabe, T.  “Literacy Gap Between Latino and White Toddlers Starts Early, Study Shows,” LA Times (2015).

White, B.P.  “The Emerging Student Majority – Beyond a Deficit View,” Inside Higher Ed (2016).

Sofía Bahena, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at
sofia.bahena@idra.orgThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June-July 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]