The Million Word Gap: New research examines how reading to kids impacts development

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Everyone knows reading to your children is important, but now a new study illustrates just how important it can be to read to your young children each night for vocabulary and reading skills.

Researchers from Ohio State University discovered a “million word gap” between children who are read to at home and children who were never read to. Published online in the Journal of Developmental and Behavior Pediatrics, the study revealed that young children whose parents read them five books a day, each day before kindergarten have heard about 1.4 million more words than children who aren’t read to at home.

The Million Word Gap: How reading to kids can impact their development

Why it is important

“Kids who hear more vocabulary words are going to be better prepared to see those words in print when they enter school,” said Jessica Logan, a member of Ohio State’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy and lead researcher of the study. “They are likely to pick up reading skills more quickly and easily.”

Even kids who are read only one book a day will hear about 290,000 more words by the age of 5 than those who don’t read with their caregiver.

1/4 of children never read to

The idea for the study evolved from earlier research, which found that about ¼ of children in a national sample were never read to and another ¼ were read to just one to two times per week – described as seldom in the study.

“The fact that we had so many parents who said they never or seldom read to their kids was pretty shocking to us,” Logan said. “We wanted to figure out what that might mean for their kids.”

Study methodology

Working with Columbus Metropolitan Library, the research team identified the 100 most circulated board books and picture books for preschoolers. Then Logan and the team randomly selected 30 books from each of the lists and counted the words in the books. On average, they found board books contain 140 words while picture books contain 228.

After that, the research included the following assumptions:

  • Kids would be read board books from birth through 3-years-old
  • After that, they would be read picture books for the next two years.
  • Every reading session would include one book
  • That parents who said they never read to their children, would actually read to their children once a month.

Findings

Based on these assumptions and their calculations, the following breaks down how many words kids would have heard by the time they were 5.

  • Never read to: 4,662
  • 1-2 times per week: 63,570
  • 3-5 times per week: 169,520
  • Daily: 296,660
  • 5 books a day: 1,483,300

The Million Word Gap: How reading to kids can impact their development

“The word gap of more than 1 million words between children raised in a literacy-rich environment and those who were never read to is striking,” Logan said.

Vocabulary gap

Researches also looked at the vocabulary gap. One study from 1992 suggested that children growing up in poverty hear about 30 million fewer words in conversation by the age of 3 than those of privileged children, but Logan said that other studies since that time have suggested a smaller gap or even a non-existent gap.

However, Logan said the vocabulary word gap in this study is different from the conversational word gap and may have different implications for children.

“This isn’t about everyday communication. The words kids hear in books are going to be much more complex, difficult words than they hear just talking to their parents and others in the home,” she said.

For instance, if parents are reading their children a book about brown bears in Alaska, they are also introducing words and concepts that might not come up in everyday conversation.

“The words kids hear from books may have special importance in learning to read,” she said.

In fact, Logan said that the million-word gap found in this study may be a conservative number because parents will often talk to their children about the books or add things if it’s a book they’ve read before. This is defined as “extra-texual” talk and will reinforce new vocabulary words or introduce new ones.

“Exposure to vocabulary is good for all kids. Parents can get access to books that are appropriate for their children at the local library,” Logan said.

For more on the study, click here. To read the abstract or access the full study, click here.

For more parenting news and research, click here.

17 COMMENTS

  1. This makes total sense and as a former teacher was something I noticed with my students. I always tried to incorporate at least 2 read alouds a day with my younger students because it is so important.

  2. I am a teacher and I agree with this wholeheartedly. I can definitely see in my students which are read to and interacted with and those who are not.

  3. Reading to our kids is one of the many things I cherish as a mom. I’ve read that kids are more susceptible to learning faster if they’ve been read to, and I want my kids to have every advantage they can!

  4. I read to my daughter everyday when she was a baby and she not only talked sooner, but she also read sooner. I am a firm believer that reading to young ones does make a tremendous impact.

  5. I’m so glad my daughters love to read. They read just about every day. They’re both in to chapter books now, which is wonderful. I think it’s so important for kids to read.

  6. It is truly amazing how much they learn not just from being read to, but also by having meaningful conversations with older siblings and adults. There are so many words that my young sons know that I don’t ever remember teaching them, so I assume they got them by “osmosis” in the books we read and the things we talk about. It’s so vitally important to be there for your children in the early years; you’ll never get those days back!

  7. It is SO important to read to kids. Even now my son is in 4th grade, they still get read to. His class just started doing this fun podcast where they are read to.

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