Understanding the Achievement Gap

What is the “achievement gap”
and how does it form?

The term “achievement gap” originated in the 1960s, when researchers began studying the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. As Education Week explains it:

“The achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates, among other success measures. It is most often used to describe the troubling performance gaps between African-American and Hispanic students, at the lower end of the performance scale, and their non-Hispanic white peers, and the similar academic disparity between students from low-income families and those who are better off.”

Lately, research has shown that achievement gaps are growing fastest not between students of different races, but those of different income levels. In 2012, the New York Times reported that while the achievement gap between black and white students has shrunk since the 1960s, the achievement gap between low and high-income families has grown by 40 percent.

Achievement gaps open early — often before children reach kindergarten. That’s because children experience a period of rapid development during their first few years of life. Between the ages of 0-3, children’s brains develop more than 1 million neural connections every second, according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

During those early years, experiences shape a child’s development. In particular, the way that adult caregivers respond to a child shapes the child’s brain architecture. As the Harvard Center on the Developing Child explains it:

“When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in “serve and return” experiences.”

How do we close achievement gaps? Early talk is the key.

These serve and return interactions can take many forms. At LENA, we focus on interactive talk between children and caregivers. Interactive talk — also known as “conversational turns” — occur when a child and caregiver respond back-and-forth to each other.

For many reasons, children experience significantly variable levels of interactive talk with adults. In 1995, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children from low-talk homes heard 30 million fewer words than children from high-talk homes. Follow-up studies using LENA technology have confirmed a “talk gap” that’s correlated with socioeconomic status — commonly referred to as the “30 million word gap” — which may appear as early as 18 months of age.

Studies since Hart and Risley’s increasingly point to conversational turns, rather than adult words alone, as the key brain-building ingredient. Because of this new research, we avoid using the term “30 million word gap,” as it has increasingly become outdated and inefficient to capture the complexities of the early talk gap.

To understand why differences in the amount of conversation children experience matters, it’s necessary to understand how interactive talk affects a child’s brain. Research shows that the language a child experiences is related to:

Additionally, research tells us that a child’s vocabulary at age three predicts language and reading skills at ages 9-10, about the time they’re finishing third grade. In turn, third grade reading scores strongly predict high school graduation.

When taken together, these studies indicate that a person’s early language exposure is a good indicator of their future developmental trajectory.

Inspired by this research, our founder Terry Paul created the LENA device as a means of giving parents and caregivers objective feedback on exactly how much they talk with children.

By teaching caregivers about the importance of interactive talk and equipping them with practical strategies to increase conversations every day, our mission is to close the “early talk gap” — and consequently the achievement gap – for good.


2018: The Year of the Conversational Turn

In 2018, researchers published three important studies on how
conversational turns in early childhood are related to brain activity, brain structure, and IQ in adolescence.

Learn more

Proving the Power of Talk: 10 Years of Research on the Impact of Language on Young Children

The past decade was seen widespread acceptance that early language plays a critical role in babies’ brain growth and in their subsequent success in school and in life. Read a summary of the latest research on the power of early talk!