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Reading to Kids: The “Million Word Gap”

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A million words. That is a lot of vocabulary. That is how many fewer words children will hear by kindergarten if they are not exposed to books.

Young children whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to.

Ohio State’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research

This million word gap can easily be used to explain the difference in expressive and receptive vocabulary skills in young children. It will also contribute to reading difficulties and poor vocabulary usage among kids. 

So what if your child just doesn’t want to read 5 books a day? Well, the study goes on to further state that “even kids who are read only one book a day will hear about 290,000 more words by age 5 than those who don’t regularly read books with a parent or caregiver.” This means that reading only one book a day, makes a huge difference in your child’s educational career. 

It makes sense that the more vocabulary words that children are exposed to prior to entering kindergarten, the higher the success rate of reading and writing skills. This is because they have prior knowledge of the words, it’s not the first time they are being introduced to them. The more children are exposed to and explained concepts, the easier it is to understand to place into long-term memory

So How Many Words? 

According to the recent study that is going to be published in Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, here’s how many words kids would have heard by the time they were 5 years old: 

  • Never read to: 4,662 words
  • 1-2 times per week: 63,570 words 
  • 3-5 times per week: 169,520 words 
  • Read daily: 296,660 words
  • Read five books a day: 1,483,300 words

The jump in words between the “never read to” and “5 books a day” is asstounding. I have to admit, I never realized the amount of words children are exposed to with just five books a day. Granted, I did know how important reading is from a young age, but oh my gosh! The research is overwhelming! 

Vocabulary of words by income group
Children vocabulary differs across income groups.

A controversial 1992 study suggested that children growing up in poverty hear about 30 million fewer words in conversation by age 3 than those from more privileged backgrounds. This study went on to state that children who are raised with professional parents hear, on average, 45 million words and an average child in the working class hears 26 million words.  Children whose families are on welfare hear around 13 million words. Other studies since then suggest this 30 million word gap may be much smaller or even non-existent.

Another study showed that 86-98% of the words in a child’s vocabulary were also found in their parents vocabulary. So, what does this tell us? Kids listen to what we say. Whether we are talking to them or not, they will pick up on vocabulary words. 

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What’s the Difference Between Conversation and Books?

As a speech pathologist, I get parents who ask me, “well, I’m talking to him, isn’t that enough?” The short answer is, no … it’s not. The reason for this is because the vocabulary in books is more advanced and specific compared to what we use in conversation with our toddlers. 

For example, my daughter’s favorite group for about 3 months of her life was a book about spiders. Yes, I know … gross. This book had words like “arachnid,” “abdomen,” “jaws,” and “lush forests.” I never used those words in general conversations with her. When she stopped wanting to read this book and moved on to Moana (thankfully), she would randomly ask me about the abdomen of a spider. I was amazed that she remembered. Flash forward a little further and the movie, Beetlejuice was on TV. A spider is shown in the beginning and she said, “look mommy, arachnid.” 

This leads me to another point … just because your child doesn’t say the word right away, doesn’t mean they aren’t understanding and retaining the information. It takes many repetitions of words in order for it to “sink in.” It was about a month after we stopped reading the spider book, that my daughter was repeating words from it and was able to generalize the information to a movie

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Speech Therapist’s Professional Experience

I worked as an early intervention therapist for about 5 years. During that time, I had a wide range of families from different economic backgrounds. One of the children I worked with was a 2 year old little girl whose family only spoke in Spanish. She went to an English speaking preschool and wasn’t learning either language successfully. 

When giving family education at the end of the session, I asked about reading books. I knew they didn’t have any as their income level was probably considered below poverty level. I, with the help of an interpreter, reinforced the importance of reading at least 2 books a day to the little girl to help expose her to language. The mom did take her to the library to pick out two books for our next session. 

The little girl LOVED it. In fact, she kept giving me the books over and over again to read. We continued to do this at the end of every session and she began speaking. By the time she turned three and was aged-out of early intervention, she was speaking in short phrases. 

I know we are busy as parents and it’s hard to budget that time. I can tell you what works for me as a parent. We started reading to our daughter when she was around 9 months old. We read as many books as possible until she finished her night time bottle. We still read to her before she goes to bed. She now picks her books, which makes it more fun for her. 

Start incorporating reading into your night time routine! Kids thrive on routines and will eventually get the hang of it. Pick books or topics that you know they are interested in reading. 

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