A follow-up study from a landmark research case carried out nearly two decades ago has highlighted the correlation between wealth and word comprehension for children as young as 18 months old. The original study discovered that children of wealthier professionals heard words millions more times than those from parents of a less affluent background by the time they reached 3 years of age. This naturally gave them a distinct advantage in school over their counterparts and showed a need to increase funding for pre-kindergarten education.

The recent follow-up study by a psychologist from Stanford University, Anne Fernald, has shown that the language gap is actually more pronounced in children of 18 months old. Having shown them pictures of simple objects, such as a ball or a dog, she found that children from wealthier parents could identify the objects much quicker than those from low-income families. By age two, these children had learned 30 per cent more words than the latter group and, by age three, they had heard more than 30 million words than children of the same age from low-income households.

The reason behind this is that wealthier professionals tend to speak more directly to their children and use more varied vocabulary at a greater rate, whereas there appears to be a tendency for less wealthy parents not to communicate as much or as directly with their children. There is a direct link between vocabulary and reading comprehension which means that children from low-income families are already facing a big disadvantage by the time they start school.

These findings have led to proactive measures being taken by the US government in the form of extra funding for preschools for all 4 year olds from low to mid-income families. Help and advice is being given to parents as well as to preschool teachers to help tackle the imbalance of wealth versus word comprehension in young children. The government is also supporting early childhood education by offering state grants through its ‘Race to the Top’ programme.

What other measures do you think could be taken by parents, teachers or educational institutions to bridge the gap so that all young children can be given the same chance to learn vocabulary at the same rate?