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September 2016

Word Gap Redux: Developmental Sequence and Quality

Author Affiliations
  • 1Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • 2Department of Pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine/Boston Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts
JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(9):827-828. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.1360

The “word gap” reflects research findings that, on average, low-income children hear 30 million fewer words and have less than half the vocabulary compared with their upper-income peers by age 3 years.1 This has become an important rallying cry to mobilize the attention of parents and policy makers because word learning contributes to cognitive development, early literacy, and social emotional development. However, similar to other science findings that turn into policy solutions, it oversimplifies the phenomenon. The implied focus on quantity of parent talk obscures the fact that there are more essential components of parent-child communication that go beyond hearing more words—specifically, developmental sequence and quality. The goal of this commentary is to provide pediatricians with more complete information so they can provide appropriate guidance for parents, policy makers, and community-based organizations interested in promoting early language acquisition and school readiness.