G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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During the discussion of the “poverty of words” article in the New York Times, it struck me that one factor to explain the oh-so-important vocabulary gap would be growing up in a single-parent (single mother, for all intents and purposes) household. Research from Hart and Risley found that the children of professional parents had heard 32 million more words by the age of four than had children from welfare households.
Two researchers who were looking into the black-white test gap wrote, interestingly:
The monumental study by Hart and Risley showed that how parents talk to their babies — the number of words the parents utter to the children through the first three years of life — is directly related to their vocabulary development and other important educational outcomes.56 However, a very high proportion of children in families in areas of concentrated poverty have only a mother to talk to them — and many of those mothers have the vocabulary of a high school dropout. The babies are apt to acquire no more education than the mother has, because the mobility out of such areas is limited.
Hart and Risley looked at socioeconomic status, but they did not analyze how the structure of the household impacts the all-important number of words a child encounters early in life. The purpose of the NYT article was to make the case that access to elite public high schools does not address gaps which are set in place way back in early childhood.
If immersing a young child in a household full of chatter is so important – it is something that is important in a different way than is the previously all-important income – then what is the long-term impact of bringing up kids in single parent households? Being around other kids isn’t enough to improve a child’s dialogue. And with only one adult around for any length of time, the number of adult words heard by the child would be minimal. Conversation uttered by an adult increases by orders of magnitude compared to when the adult is not around other adults. In a way, there is a case to be made, using Hart and Risley’s logic, that (positive) adult networks are beneficial to children. But (positive) adult networks are hardest to come by in single-mother households, by definition.