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How to fill the '30 million word gap'

Mother and child talking
Credit: iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

The more words your child hears, the more words they’ll know; so speak to them early and speak to them often.  

That’s the general consensus from child health experts around the world who know children with larger vocabularies do better at school, in their career and in relationships.

In fact, a 2003 study called the 30 million word gap, reported children from lower-income families hear 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families by the time they are three years old.1

According to the study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the reason children from the higher-income families did so well was not because their parents made more money, but because the children heard more words - the ones that helped make their parents more affluent in the first place.

However, regardless of income, the study showed that children from home environments that were “language rich” could bridge the 30 million word gap, and parents could give them the best start in life by talking and interacting with them more.

Despite some more recent scrutiny these findings gained widespread support, shaping educational approaches and resulting in thousands of citations. In essence however, the research emphasised how critical it is to talk, sing, and read aloud to children every day, starting from birth and continuing through the preschool years to promote not only language development but overall brain development, says Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service senior speech therapist Kym Dunstan.

When babies are born they have millions of nerve cells in their brain, but the connections between those cells is limited. As they grow, it is their interactions that form those connections,” she says.

Babies brains are learning machines so talking, singing, books and touching all helps to build their brains.

“In fact, by the time babies are three, 90 per cent of their brain has been developed2 and if they don’t continue to interact and form connections within their brain then they will lose those connections,” she says.

Your aim is to have as many back and forth interactions between you and your children, anything that includes sounds, words or stories.
Speech therapist, Kym Dunstan

And the good news for parents is that they don’t have to formally teach babies and language skills, you just need to live in the moment with them and make your interactions with them count, says Mrs Dunstan.

“Aim for lots of back and forth interaction between you and your child and babies and build it into your day.

“Of course it is never too early to start singing and sharing and reading books with your children, and making it a regular part of your day means it becomes a good habit and part of their routine.

“Young babies learn to predict what happens next and knowing what is coming next, helps them to learn,” she says.

Parents don’t need fancy toys or equipment to help their babies and small children learn.

“It is often the really basic stuff that makes the biggest impact,” Mrs Dunstan says.

“And what we often find when we give advice on how to interact and help your baby to communicate is that parents are often already doing much of it and we just provide a reminder that they should keep on doing it.”

One of the first ideas a parent can do is to get down to their children’s level and imitate their facial expressions and words.

“When you are face-to-face with your baby or child, you are more aware of each other and they can look at your face and your expressions and you can follow their lead,” she says.

Slowing down our interactions with our children is another way to help build their language skills.

“Adults tend to talk quickly to get the job done and often we wait less than a second when asking our kids a question,” she says.

“But children need longer to process things so my suggestion is that if parents ask their child a question, they count to five and then let their child answer without being interrupted.”

Taking turns when you are talking to your child, shows them that you are interested in them and lets them have a chance to participate in the “return and serve” nature of a conversation,” Mrs Dunstan says.

Reading was another great way to interact with your child, while helping to build their vocabulary and learn how to communicate, she says.

“There are numerous ways to incorporate the experience of books into your baby’s life and it all depends on what is happening in your family and how your household runs, but what is important is that it is a fun enjoyable moment that lets you and your baby interact in a way that fosters a love of reading.”

“Don’t feel as though you have to read the whole book, or even any of the words on the page, just use the pictures to interact with your baby or young child,” she says.

Taking turns and building word banks in your children’s brains can also be encouraged with everyday activities and interactions.

“Parents could fill an old pillow case with items from around the house and take it in turns to pull out the objects and describe them to each other,” Mrs Dunstan says.

Using a wide variety of words and conversations around everyday activities like cooking, washing or having a bath was another good way to help build language skills. 

“Your aim is to have as many back and forth interactions between you and your children, anything that includes sounds, words or stories,” she says.


1 The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf 

2 Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development story. Neuroscience and early childhood development: Summary of selected literature and key messages for parenting. Authored by Pam Winter, Ph.D., Early Childhood Services, Department of Education and Children’s Services, South Australia, March 2010 http://www.scseec.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Reports%20and%20publications/Publications/Early%20childhood%20education/Engaging%20Families%20in%20the%20ECD%20Story-Neuroscience%20and%20ECD.pdf 

Some tips to get the most out of reading time, according to Mrs Dunstan are:

  • Sit next to each other so that you can see each other’s faces and the book (use the crook of your arm for younger babies).
  • Let your baby or child turn the page.
  • Make it interesting by using difference voices, volumes and sounds.
  • As children get older, ask questions about what they think, or what might happen next.
  • Talk about how to hold the book, the different parts of the book and how we read from left to right.
  • Encourage toddlers to fill in the gaps of parts they know.
  • Connect the story to your toddler’s own experiences.
  • Make books easily accessible in your home.
  • You could also just tell a story.
  • Wait and see what interests your child – and respond to this by talking about the pictures.