Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fear of the 32 Million Word Gap

None of the folks who read David Shenk's "32 Million Word Gap" for class were pleased. Shenk's essay, which appeared on The Atlantic's website in 2010,  presented research findings about the vastly different levels of language acquisition among children from welfare homes, working-class homes, and professionals' homes. 

"Children in professionals' homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes," wrote Shenk. "Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which, by age four, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words."

Later, Shenk notes that "the average child from a professional family receives 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback; a  working- class child receives merely 100,000 more encouragements than discouragements; a welfare child receives 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements."

If the findings that Shenk summarized were accurate and if the "direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement" were also correct, then many of us must have been on the wrong side of that many millions word gap. And the large majority of the people we knew who were less well off than us were apparently at even more serious disadvantages.

Students in the class offered several personal anecdotes seeking to counter the findings of those studies Shenk presented. In their voices, I detected traces of defensiveness, frustration, hurt, and fear. The findings from the article were no doubt useful and fascinating. What I learned covering the piece with my students, though, was that the revelations could also be frightening or at least threatening to those whose family profiles more closely resembled working-class and lower-income homes as opposed to households of professionals.

What was especially far out for some was the realization that so much concerning our early knowledge and thus our current shortcomings and talents had in fact been beyond our control. 

Related:  A Notebook on Fear of Language 


Anonymous said...

The problem is that Hart and Risley did not find anything. They only had a sample of 42 families. Subdivide this into four different groups and you are left with 8 to 10 families per group. All the poor families lived in the exact same housing project. Thus, their study had little statistical power to see anything. All the well-off families were friends of the authors. Their research was certainly time and labor intensive (over ten years), and it began in the late 1970s, and was not written up until the early 1990s. Furthermore, they counted wrong! Read this:
Your students should be defensive--not against the finding, but against the scary fact that such a poor piece of research has seized the front cover of the Atantic, the NY Times, etc. It all fits in with the blame the victim discourse--"The Achievement (not Opportunity?) Gap"

H. Rambsy said...

Ah-ha. Thanks for the heads up and useful points here.