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Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children

Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children

Authors: Betty Hart Ph.D., Todd R. Risley Ph.D.   Foreword Author: Lois Bloom Ph.D.

ISBN: 978-1-55766-197-5
Pages: 308
Copyright: 1995
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Size:  6.0 x 9.0
Stock Number:  61975
Format:  Hardcover
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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.

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Review by: Grover Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary of Education for Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education
"Remarkable findings . . . ground-breaking"
Review: Contemporary Psychology
"A benchmark for anyone interested in how children acquire intellectual skills, or in the policy implications of educational interventions in this area."
Review: Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
"Hart and Risely's simple, clear writing style provides a succinct product... Read it yourself. Send one to your congressional representatives."
Review: Journal of Early Intervention
"[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."
Review: Remedial and Special Education
"This book has the potential to shape the lives of future generations."
Review by: Thomas Daschle, U.S. Senator
"Alerts us to how much each person's future intellectual ability hinges upon his or her experience in the first year of life."
Review by: Lois Bloom
A detective story of the most serious academic kind.
Review by: H.J. Eysenck
The book is a model of how environmental factors in intelligence formation should be studied.
Review by: E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Education and Humanities, University of Virginia
"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."
Review by: Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, Fifth Edition
"Some of the most eye-opening research ever produced on children's early lives."
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
Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children
By Betty Hart, Ph.D., and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D.
©1995. Brookes Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

Intergenerational Transmission of Competence

America in the 1960s found a cause worth committing to: the War on Poverty. The aim was to interrupt the cycle of poverty—the economic disadvantages that resulted from employment disadvantages that resulted from growing up in poverty. An attack was mounted on two fronts: breaking down barriers to the advantages mainstream society enjoyed, and providing a boost up through job training programs and early educational institutions. Job training programs and early education programs provided a boost up into the job market and the school system.

Because poverty was differentially prevalent among minorities, racial discrimination had to be targeted. But race, rather than cycle of poverty, was a central issue only in designing strategies to preserve cultural identity within mainstream society. Early education programs such as Head Start were funded to serve African American children in inner-city ghettos, Native American children isolated on reservations, and white children in rural Appalachia. All across the country, experts in early childhood education designed intervention programs to give children isolated in poverty the social and cognitive experiences that underlay the academic success of advantaged children. It was thought the War on Poverty could change children's lives within a generation.

Events continue to remind us that the War on Poverty did not succeed. After barriers were removed and a boost up was provided, the people who had the knowledge and skills that could influence the and motivate the next generation of children moved away and left those less competent isolated in communities riddled with drugs, crime, unemployment, and despair. Like most wars, the War on Poverty was more successful in destroying the past than in creating the future, the competencies for participating in an increasingly technological society.

Competence as a social problem is still with us. American society still sees many of its children enter school ill-prepared to benefit from education. Too many children drop out of school and follow their parents into unemployment or onto welfare, where they raise their children in a culture of poverty. The boost up from early intervention during the War on Poverty did not solve the problem of giving children the competencies they need to succeed in school. We recognize now that by the time children are 4 years old, intervention programs come too late and can provide too little experience to make up for the past.

Early Intervention Programs

The intervention programs of the War on Poverty, the first efforts, were modeled on the booster shot. It was assumed that a concentrated dose of mainstream culture would be enough to raise intellectual performance and lead to success in mainstream schools. Children disadvantaged from living in isolated areas were brought into preschool programs similar to those advantage children attended. The programs offered the enriched materials and activities available in such preschools, but replaced the traditional emphasis on social development with an emphasis on compensatory education, especially language and cognitive development.

Innovative curricula were designed and field tested. The content and objectives of the curricula were selected to teach in the preschool the competencies advantaged children apparently acquired at home. All of these curricula programmed successive educational experiences using materials especially designed to help children master basic academic skills in the style originated by Montessori for teaching poor children in Italy. DARCEE of Gray and Kalus, Karnes's GOAL, DISTAR of Bereiter and Engleman, and others are examples of the language and cognitive development curricula that were designed during the War on Poverty.

Programs differed in emphasis and teaching methods, depending on theoretical orientation. Psychodynamic theory led to an emphasis on motivation and self-concept in the Bank Street Program. In the Perry Preschool Project, the program, derived mainly from Piagetian theory, emphasized learning through activities and experiences to stimulate children to construct concepts and develop logical modes of thought. The behavioral orientation of the Bereiter-Engleman program emphasized highly structured direct instruction, including pattern drill.

Major improvements in language and cognitive performance were often immediate and large and were not unique to any particular curriculum or theoretical approach. The improvements in performance were apparent in the preschool and carried over into the home. Although parents did not necessarily appreciate the change in their children's behavior, they accepted the increase in activity and curiosity that resulted from the enriched experiences. Lateral and horizontal diffusion of the curricula content spread the effects beyond the child into the family and community. Head Start is still in existence because long-term benefits did accrue from early intervention programs; the children did adapt better to school and many stayed through school into adulthood with their age-mates.

But the academic headstart was temporary. In kindergarten, children who had not attended preschool programs caught up with the children who had. By the third grade the effects of the boost had washed out, and there was little difference in the academic performance between children who had and had not taken part in early intervention programs. Scholastic achievement scores were similar to those before the War on Poverty. By the 1970s, intervention experts were wondering how they could have possibly have believed that a single shot of mainstream culture would be sufficient to make substantial changes in intellectual performance in all or most children raised in poverty.

Intervention at the Turner House Preschool

Early in the War on Poverty, civic leaders in an African American community, the improvised Juniper Gardens area of Kansas City, Kansas, joined representatives of the Bureau of Child Research at the University of Kansas in Lawrence to develop a community-based program of research designed to improve the educational and developmental experiences of the neighborhood children. They persuaded the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas to tear down a church in Juniper Gardens and build a community center, Turner House, and then called in a cadre of applied psychologists expert in remediating and generalizing behavior. We (the authors) brought our experience with clinical language intervention to design a half-day program for the Turner House Preschool. Instead of focusing on a theory-based curriculum designed to affect a hypothetical construct we could measure or estimate only from tests, we designed an intervention focused on the everyday language the children were using.

We focused on children's spontaneous speech as the best dynamic of cognitive functioning and as the behavior most likely to influence the educational value of people's responses. Rather than evaluate the results of an intervention program by how children performed on IQ tests administered outside the intervention setting, we looked for improvements in how the children functioned in their daily activities in the preschool. We wanted the children to know more, but we also wanted to see them applying that knowledge, using language to elicit information and learning opportunities form their teachers in the preschool. We watched what the children were doing to guide what we were doing.

We developed reliable recording methods so that we could sample each child's spontaneous speech during preschool free play every day, recording all the utterances the child produced during a 15-minute observation. When data from a particular child were processed by computer, for each observation a list was derived of each different word encountered in the data; that list was compared to the master of all the different words so far recorded for that child, and any word not already on the list was added. In this way an individual dictionary was compiled for each child that contained all the different words the child had produced during the observation. We used this dictionary as a measure of the child's vocabulary.

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