What went missing when Vice President Biden talked about the ‘word gap,’ record players and poor children

Article Summary:

Vice President Joe Biden’s baffling response to a question during the last 2020 candidate debate reignited an old argument — whether the young children of low-income parents start off life at a disadvantage because their parents don’t speak to them enough.

The former vice president correctly referred to recent research about poor children hearing 4 million fewer words, on average, than those in wealthier families, said Jill Gilkerson, the lead author of a 2017 study that the Biden campaign says he was citing. But she adds that there’s way more to the story when it comes to increasing a child’s verbal ability and IQ through early language.

“It’s all about the engaged conversation,” said Gilkerson, senior director of research and evaluation at the LENA Foundation, a nonprofit focused on language development. “That’s what’s predictive of long-term outcomes — not play a record player, [not] put them in front of the TV.”

Gilkerson’s team found a significant correlation between the amount of back-and-forth exchanges, or “turn taking,” very young children did and their verbal ability and IQs in middle school. The number of words they heard early on was important, but their “turn taking” was more so, across family income levels.

“Word count gets all the attention because the numbers are big,” she said. “But turn taking is way more predictive of outcomes than the sheer amount of words children hear.”