Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children
Early Childhood, Communication and Language
More widely cited than ever before, this book presents findings on the disparities in daily interactions between parents and children of different socioeconmic backgrounds and the effect of these disparities on children's vocabulary and later intellectual performance.
61975 978-1-55766-197-5
1995 308
Available Stock
Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children is the story of the landmark research study that uncovered the widely cited "word gap" between children from low-income homes and their more economically advantaged peers. This groundbreaking research has spurred hundreds of studies and programs, including the White House’s Bridging the Word Gap campaign and Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton foundation.

Betty Hart and Todd Risley wanted to know why, despite best efforts in preschool programs to equalize opportunity, children from low-income homes remain well behind their more economically advantaged peers years later in school. Each month, they recorded one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or welfare families. Two and a half years of coding and analyzing every utterance in 1,318 transcripts followed. By age 3, the recorded spoken vocabularies of the children from the professional families were larger than those of the parents in the welfare families. Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 300 words spoken per hour. Extrapolating this verbal interaction to four years, a child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, while an average child in a welfare family would hear just 13 million—coining the phrase the 30 million word gap.

The implications of this painstaking study are staggering: Hart and Risley's follow-up studies at age 9 show that the large differences in children's language experience were tightly linked to large differences in child outcomes. As the authors note in their preface to the 2002 printing of Meaningful Differences, "the most important aspect to evaluate in child care settings for very young children is the amount of talk actually going on, moment by moment, between children and their caregivers." By giving children positive interactions and experiences with adults who take the time to teach vocabulary, oral language concepts, and emergent literacy concepts, children should have a better chance to succeed at school and in the workplace.

Learn more about how parent and children's language interactions affect learning to talk in Hart & Risley's companion book The Social World of Children Learning to Talk.

A Preface for 2002
About the Authors
  1. Intergenerational Transmission of Competence
  2. Sampling Children's Developmental Experience
  3. 42 American Families
  4. Everyday Parenting
  5. Quality Features of Language and Interaction
  6. The Early Experience of 42 Typical American Children
  7. Accomplishments of the 42 Children at Age 3 and Later
  8. The Importance of the First 3 Years of Family Experience
  9. Intervention to Equalize Early Experience
Appendix A: Quality Features
Appendix B: Figures


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Grover Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary of Education for Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education - July 26, 2001
"Remarkable findings . . . ground-breaking"
: Contemporary Psychology - January 1, 1997
"A benchmark for anyone interested in how children acquire intellectual skills, or in the policy implications of educational interventions in this area."
: Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis - January 1, 1997
"Hart and Risely's simple, clear writing style provides a succinct product... Read it yourself. Send one to your congressional representatives."
: Journal of Early Intervention - January 1, 1997
"[This] book may very well change our thinking abut how we arrange early experiences for our children, if not revolutionize our approach to childhood. It should be required reading by anyone seriously involved in early education and intervention as well as policy makers."
: Remedial and Special Education - January 1, 1997
"This book has the potential to shape the lives of future generations."
Thomas Daschle, U.S. Senator - January 1, 1996
"Alerts us to how much each person's future intellectual ability hinges upon his or her experience in the first year of life."
Lois Bloom - January 1, 1996
A detective story of the most serious academic kind.
H.J. Eysenck - January 1, 1996
The book is a model of how environmental factors in intelligence formation should be studied.
E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Education and Humanities, University of Virginia - January 1, 1996
"From age 2 on, there exist large differences in children's familiarity with unusual words, standard pronunciation, and complex syntax, a fact that was long suspected, but not well documented and quantified until the monumental research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley."
Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, Fifth Edition - January 1, 1996
"Some of the most eye-opening research ever produced on children's early lives."
Authors: Betty Hart Ph.D., Todd R. Risley Ph.D.   Foreword Author: Lois Bloom Ph.D.