The conversation gap

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.

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  1. Independent George says:

    Shouldn’t a study like this make note of how immigrant families speak to their children, and whether it’s in English or their native tongue? I know you generally try to keep the focus as narrow as possible to make stat metrics easier, but non-native English speakers seems to be a pretty important sub-category for a proper analysis.

    I’m very curious about this, because the majority of students in my HS were either immigrants, or the children of immigrants. I’m very curious to see if these results hold true across different languages – in other words, would a kid’s skills in English improve even if his parents spoke mainly in Creole while he was an infant?

    Perhaps most importantly: if quality of words matters, does this mean that all that cutsie-wootsie wittle baby-tawk is every bit as insidous as we humorless yuppie singles have always claimed it was?

  2. Walter Wallis says:

    The obvious solution is a law prohibiting parents speaking to their children.

  3. I’d like to see a study done comparing siblings (including mono and dizygotic twins) raised in different households.
    There is a serious discrepancy between this sort of research and an abundance of research which suggests that early parental influence is limited.

  4. Interesting: this is hardly new info. I knew most of this stuff from hanging around Jerome Bruner and his post docs at Harvard in the early 60’s. As to bi-lingual families, initial progress seemed slower but soon the kids caught up and surpassed their monolingual friends in many verbal skills. The only difference I can see with that old research and this current stuff, is that Bruner et al. were explicitly looking at parent education level, not race. Interesting that the break down in the BlackWhite studies was along economic (hence likely educational) lines.
    One bilingual experience I recall was the young child of a Russian father and American mother, both of whom spoke the other’s language fluently. No matter what language the parents or visitors would address the kid in, he always responded in their NATIVE language, even if he had NEVER heard them speak it. (We tested this by having new folks come to the house and speak in their non-native language. – All adults were bilingual to a relative degree of fluency, but only the boy was a native bilingual.)

  5. In families with a lot of verbal interaction in a language other than English, children tend to learn English easily and do well in school.

  6. wordwarp says:

    Two letters missing in that study.

  7. Roy W. Wright says:


  8. M. David says:

    Pretty amazing; we have entered the 10 yr anniversary of “The Bell Curve” and the level of denial is simply incredible.

    Taboo: to prohibit something from use, approach, or mention because of its sacred and inviolate nature.

    I.Q. discussion is certainly taboo on this issue.

  9. Mike McKeown says:

    Re the seeming paradox of little parental effect on children and yet the high importance of home environment on academic achievement:

    Although not discussed by people like Pinker, I think that the lack of parental effect is on things such as personality and mastery of the syntax of the language, while the other studies deal with development of a large vocabulary with its associated links to knowledge of the world.

    Parsed this way, both phenomena make sense and are not contradictory.

  10. “By the age of three, professional parents had spoken an estimated 35 million words to their children…”

    Those professional parents were early talkers!

  11. Fuzzy Rider says:

    There are several articles on IQ and race archived on This is a controversial,non-PC, anti-immigration site, but the articles are well researched and well written- make of them what you will.

  12. ” does this mean that all that cutsie-wootsie wittle baby-tawk is every bit as insidous as we humorless yuppie singles have always claimed it was?”

    No, because at least the last I heard, the claim was that the cutsie-wootsie wittle baby talk was easier to understand by the child — stressing the vowel sounds and so forth.

    Anyway, back to the point of the study. I see a market now for “Saltate on Pater”, “I am a Youthful Canis Familiaris”, “The Tabby in the Chapeau”, “Viridian Avian Embryos and Smoked and Salted Porcine Flesh”, etc.

  13. Chinese parents, especially the older, less educated ones, aren’t big on talking to kids.

    Yet we know about the relative performance of Chinese kids from poor families vs black kids from well off ones. (Compare SATs of Asian kids from bottom 20% income families to SATS of black kids from families with over 50K per year in income)

  14. I’m sure that parental interaction with infants is, ceterus paribus, a good thing, and this article seems to collect anecdotal evidence that this affects performance. I say anecdotal, because this is not a controlled blind study (which would probably not be possible) in which children of all races and all socio-economic groups are divided (in a way to ensure the statistical integrity of the results) controlled groups, with varying levels of intereaction and words.

    As others have pointed out, the elephant in the room is native intelligence, whether expressed as IQ or something else. Group averages, of course, do not tell us anything about the intelligence of any individual in the group. Instead of lowering standards for all members of a group, we should concentrate on identifying the members who will meet the higher standards and working from there.

  15. could not the “number of words” be correlated to the amount of time parents spend with their children?

    There have been numerous studies that have shown that actual INTERACTION with adults (rather than being plunked in front of the tv) has a huge beneficial effect on child development.

    And there is a middle ground between the stomach-turning (to me at least) baby talk and talking to the child like he’s already a Ph.D: it’s called simple sentences and short words. There’s no need to go “oooohhh” or “did baby stubby his widdle toey?” You can say “Did you hurt yourself? Does your toe hurt?”

  16. Anonymous says:

    An interesting correlation, but I don’t see any proof of causation…

  17. 35 million words? Seems kind of high:

    One word every second, 365 days a year, 8 hours a day, for three years is only 31 million words.

    Now, I know people can speak more than 1 word per second (more like 3) to adults, but does anyone speak to an infant every single day for 8 hours straight for the first three years of their life?

  18. Steven H says:

    You would think TV would be the big equalizer, if number of words a child is exposed to is that critical to development.

  19. “The obvious solution is a law prohibiting parents speaking to their children.”

    Um, Walter, the whole point was that we want parents to speak to their children *more*. I’m not sure how you manage to get from that that the government somehow wants to *stop* parents from speaking to their children, except that you always think “the government” is up to no good. Please at least try to make sense. You keep jerking your knee like that, you’re going to hurt yourself.

  20. Roy W. Wright says:

    Um, Walter, the whole point was that we want parents to speak to their children *more*.

    I think Walter’s point was pretty clear. For example, we want people to succeed in life, don’t we? Yet when they do, we punish the snot out of them (through taxes). Seems like a decent analogy.

  21. Anonymous says:

    > You would think TV would be the big equalizer, if number of words a child is exposed to is that critical to development.

    It’s not, because the speech has to be interactive. And this is the point of baby talk too, which is why it occurs in every single culture. We speak to babies in a high-pitched tone, so they notice. We use simplified phonetics (bunny instead of rabbit, tummy instead of stomach) to make it easier for the baby to understand the words and eventually say them. And, crucially, we talk to the baby about what is going on now. Instead of a TV droning on, the mother or daddy says “That’s a BALL. Look, it’s a RED BALL. Can you hold the BALL? Uh oh, you dropped your BALL. Let’s pick it up.” And pretty soon the baby learns what ball and uh oh mean.

    Babies don’t learn language at all well from TV.

    If there is a difference between black American parents talking to their kids and white American parents talking to their kids, and we wonder if that affects the kids’ language learning or if it’s genetic, the obvious answer is to look at children adopted across race, and black families and white families in different cultures. If, say, Dominican kids get talked to a lot and grow up with big vocabularies, then we would have confirming evidence that the black American kids’ smaller vocabularies are environmental rather than genetic. I suspect some of these studies have already been done.

  22. “I think Walter’s point was pretty clear. For example, we want people to succeed in life, don’t we? Yet when they do, we punish the snot out of them (through taxes). Seems like a decent analogy.”

    Taxes are “punishment” now, Roy? The heck? While I agree there’s plenty of waste and corruption in the system, taxes occassionally go to, you know, pay for stuff that makes my life easier. Are you suggesting that we have some kind of government that doesn’t tax us? So how, exactly, would you suggest that would work? I’m fascinated.

  23. I can see a new yuppie baby accessory. The talk meter! Yes, you too can keep track of your baby’s verbal environment. Sure, the nanny SAYS she talks to your kid, but does she really? Granny SAYS they played patty-cake, but does the word count add up? How many developmentally enriching words does your child hear in day care? With this new gadget, you can be certain that your child is on track to fulfill his or her societal expectations. After all, once they escape from your womb, you really don’t control their auditory surroundings. Your child could reach preschool five neurons short! (gasp!)

  24. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I love my wife and my children and I arranged my life to maximize their exposure to me. I also chose a lower level of income because I valued a wife and mother at home more than a new car every three years. I suspect that in every family with values similar to mine, the children receive the intellectual stimulation needed.

  25. Mike McKeown says:

    If I may take a shot at deconstructing Walter, I think he was making a ‘handicapper general’ comment. If we want to eliminate the gap between those with more talent or skill and those with less, we can either bring up the bottom or lower the top, not worrying about whether the top is a good thing.

    Prohibiting parents from talking to their kids is a way of decreasing the gap by making everyone lower. To close the standardized test gap, we could make all answers random, indeed, even eliminate the questions, but require that each line have one bubble filled in.

  26. Walter E. Wallis says:

    like you said.

  27. I get so depressed when I see obviously low-income, poorly educated parents (black and white) snap at their children in public. The kid asks “What’s that?” and the parent responds “Shut up” or “Nothing.” We all have our busy moments, but I always get the feeling these people never take the time to explain anything to their kids.

  28. Mmmkay, I guess it’s just technically within the sphere of reality that the gov’t could decide to try to limit how much parents speak to their children (since anything is possible), but I think it might be a bit more likely that, in light of this study, the gov’t would try to encourage people to speak to their children more.

    Call me a crazy, bleeding-heart nanny-state liberal, but I’m willing to bet that’s the way it would go down.

    But, hey, don’t let me (or reality) stand in the way of a good round of I-hates-me-the-government.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Grow up, Becky.

  30. Richard Aubrey says:

    Becky, given the history of the government’s attempts to fix people, do you think the bulk of their efforts are devoted to allowing people to get as good as they can be if the result is a gap between them and the less fortunate or less motivated?
    The government is always concerned to reduce or remove the gap and holding down the top is the preferred method.

  31. Walter E. Wallis says:

    At the risk of really getting burned, one answer might be to find a way, through the faith based initiative, to help Black churches reinstitute pride of parenting and family in their constituents. There have been times when I have felt that Black churches were the only ones still carrying the tourch.

  32. IQ seems to be another at best partial explanation, since Asians tend to have similar average IQs with Caucasians. They tend to get far better grades, though. Thomas Sowell has written a lot about this. If Asians don’t have the higher IQs, then their relative success in school must be at least partly cultural.

    Now with baby talk figuring in, if Asians don’t have the baby talk or the IQ to explain it, then cultural factors must play a larger role than this study allows. Baby talk may play some role, just as economic status or education level of parents do (within racial groups), but when you compare economic status between racial groups, you can see that something other than economic status is doing the work. I haven’t looked at the data here, but it may have a similar result, that within a racial group baby talk makes a difference but between racial groups it’s not the fundamental factor, just as genetics and class aren’t.


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