Mind the word gap

Published: 4:14 AM, May 2, 2014
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Singaporean parents famously spare no expense when it comes to ensuring their children’s educational success, with estimates that up to 90 per cent of youngsters take tuition classes from early ages. But one of the most important investments parents can make to improve children’s learning outcomes is free. It turns out to be much more critical than enrichment programmes: It is talking to them.

This may sound like common sense and part of every family’s daily routine but a growing body of evidence shows that a massive word gap exists between children from disadvantaged families compared with their middle-class counterparts. Researchers in the United States note that by the time a poor child is three years old, she will have heard 30 million fewer words than a wealthier peer.

This is because of the patterns of interactions between parents and children in different kind of households. It turns out that, on average, less well-off parents speak less to their children, especially before children have developed language abilities, and the kind of speech tends to be more directive: “Stop that” or “Pick up your toys”.


Children are less likely to develop expansive vocabularies with directed speech because it requires little in the way of response and does not elicit conversation.

Interactive speech, more common among the middle class, forces children to search for words and use them: “What should we do at the playground today?” or “Let’s tell your little brother a story — what kind would he like?”

The word gap means that many children from poor households start kindergarten already far behind and some scientists fear that it is almost impossible for many children to catch up at that point. Studies have shown that, without intervention, kids who lag in vocabulary at age three add words more slowly than children with expanded speech so that, over time, the gap grows. And children’s facility with language at age three is a good predictor of how well they perform in school at ages nine or 10.

In Singapore, the Government’s goal is to make sure that every child develops to his fullest potential. The word-gap evidence is just one more reason why a focus on the early years is essential to making that goal a reality.

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