Mother-child language researcher dies

Betty Hart, whose research showed the importance of mother-child communication in the early years, has died at 85 in Tucson, reports the New York Times.

“Rather than concede to the unmalleable forces of heredity, we decided that we would undertake research that would allow us to understand the disparate developmental trajectories we saw,” she and her former graduate supervisor, Todd R. Risley, wrote in 1995 in “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” a book about their findings, which were reported in 1992.

. . . “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour),” Drs. Hart and Risley wrote.

“By age 4, the average child in a welfare family might have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than the average child in a working-class family,” they added.

Educated mothers were much more likely to use an encouraging, warm tone with young children,  while welfare mothers were more likely to reprimand their children.

The Hart-Risley research has been very influential, yet I think we could do more to help poorly educated mothers improve their parenting styles. Early childhood education funding should be focused on very disadvantaged children who need social and emotional support and exposure to language.

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  1. Bostonian says:

    Blogger Steve Sailer has an interesting discussion of Hart’s work . If poor children have smaller vocabularies at age 3, it could be that they have been spoken to less, but another factor could be that they are not as smart as affluent children on average.

    • J. D. Salinger says:

      Gee, any other factors you can think of?

    • Wash your mouth out with soap, immediately! How can you suggest that some kids/people are smarter than others and that influences their life situations? ALL children can be whatever they want to be; all it takes is “engagement”. Of course, kids with IQs of 85 can be engineers, lawyers, doctors and scientists! Sprinkle the pixie dust and powdered unicorn horn!

      • J.D. Salinger says:

        Good point. Let’s not waste out time on them. Let them use Everyday Math and let’s be done with them.

  2. Genevieve says:

    I wonder if early childhood funding should be focused on the most disadvantaged. While they may need it the most, they are the least equipped to take advantage of it. Most out of home programs require transportation. Most in home programs (ie home visits) require parents to participate. Many times families forget or have conflicts for home visits. While research has shown promising results with home visiting programs, I’m not sure how often they target the most disadvantaged.
    I’m not saying that we target middle class families. I do wonder if there would be a better return for focusing resources on working class families (Hart also found that these children hear far fewer words than middle class families) and motivated poor families. These families might be more likely to complete programs and make changes in how they parent. These are also children that are at risk and are likely to come to kindergarten performing lower than their middle class peers.

  3. I wonder how this plays out for the kids of new Asian immigrants, particularly those whose parents have little education. Even though their parents are likely to work long hours, the kids are likely to be successful. Has anyone studied this group?