Differences in how parents talk to young children account for most of the black-white gap in school performance, argues George Farkas, a Penn State professor of sociology, demography and education in an American Sociological Association Contexts article, “The Black-White Test Score Gap.”
“Research has shown that greater verbal interaction between parents and young children improves students’ performance on standardized tests,” Farkas says. “By the age of three, professional parents had spoken an estimated 35 million words to their children, working- and middle-class had spoken about 20 million words, and lower-class parents had only spoken about 10 million words.”
These families differed not only in the total number of words spoken, but also in the number of different vocabulary words used in these conversations. These differences had strong effects on the vocabulary knowledge developed by the children in these families.
“By 18 to 20 months, the vocabulary growth trajectories of the children of professional parents had already accelerated beyond those of other children,” Farkas adds. According to his research, there seems to be both a social class, and controlling for class, a Black-White difference in children’s oral vocabulary growth from infancy to adolescence. Preschool vocabulary knowledge is a strong predictor of reading performance in early elementary school, and early elementary reading performance is a strong predictor of later school performance generally.
The black-white test gap narrowed by 40 percent from 1970 to 1990 as blacks made economic and social gains. Since 1990, the gap has remained the same.
Farkas says early intervention programs can help, but only parents can make a significant difference.