Reading, vocabulary, and the 'million-word gap'

Published on Wednesday, 12 June 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Article hero image

When you read a book to your baby, toddler, or preschooler, you are doing more than just telling a story. You are also supporting their brain development, encouraging their imagination, teaching them about language and emotions, expanding their vocabulary, and sharing not just a story, but also a bonding experience.

A new study by The Ohio State University has found a 'million-word gap' between the young children who are read to at home, and those who aren't.

To see what effect this has by the time they reach kindergarten, let's explore the study in more detail.

What was the background to this study?

Jessica Logan is the lead author of this research, and assistant professor of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University. She brought forth the 'million-word gap' study due to her earlier research findings of about one-quarter of children in an American sample were never read to and another quarter were seldom read to, that is, they were read to just once or twice a week.

Ms Logan says, 'The fact that we had so many parents who said they never or seldom read to their kids was pretty shocking to us. We wanted to figure out what that might mean for their kids' and the idea for the 'million-word gap' study was born.

What did the study involve?

To determine the types of books being read to young children, researchers worked with Columbus Metropolitan Library to identify 100 of the most circulated board books for babies and toddlers, and picture books for preschoolers.

Logan and her colleagues then randomly selected 30 books from each list and looked at each book’s word count. They determined that, on average, board books contained about 140 words and picture books had approximately 228.

Assuming that a child would be read board books from birth until the age of three, and picture books from three to five years, researchers were then able to work out how many words a child would hear by the time they turned five, depending on different reading experiences.

Once the calculations were in, researchers found that children who were:

  • Never or barely read to, heard 4,662 words by the age of five
  • Read to once or twice a week, heard 63,570 words
  • Read to daily heard 296,660 words
  • Read five books a day heard an impressive 1,483,300 words

As such, this study discovered not just a million-word gap, but a 1,478,638 word gap between children who grow up in a 'literacy-rich environment' and those in less book-ish households.

What is the effect of the 'million-word gap' by the time children turn five?

Apart from missing out on all those exciting stories and eye-boggling illustrations, Ms Logan says that the 'million-word gap' could be key in explaining differences in vocabulary and reading development by the time children start 'big school'.

'Kids who hear more vocabulary words are going to be better prepared to see those words in print when they enter school [and are] likely to pick up reading skills more quickly and easily,' she says.

It's important to note too, that because researchers looked at word counts on the page, rather than those coming up in casual conversation, this research relates to a 'vocabulary word gap' rather than a 'conversational word gap,' and it has different implications for youngsters.

Ms Logan says, 'The words kids hear in books are going to be much more complex, difficult words than they hear just talking to their parents and others in the home … [and] the words kids hear from books may have special importance in learning to read.'

In other words, while Julia Donaldson's books are talking about gruffalos, dragons and mermaids, Mum is more likely to be discussing sandwiches, swimming and slippery dips.

Ms Logan also notes that the 'million-word gap' is probably conservative because parents will talk about the book they're reading and embellish the story if they've shared The Gruffalo 10,000 times already.

This 'extra-textual' talk reinforces new words the child has heard and can introduce extra ones, so feel free to add your own touch to those classic children's books and take the time to invest in their vocabulary.

Happy reading!

Additional reference
Raising Children Australia

Related Articles

Article image

Books are still better for children than devices

Even in the age of digital technology books will always be better for children.

Article image

10 children's books with strong female protagonists

Female protagonists remain largely invisible in Australian picture books for young children, so here are 10 amazing books to redress the balance.

Article image

Screen time - Why less is best for preschoolers

Tablets and TV can be a tempting way to entertain preschoolers, but according to recent research, too much screen time can do more harm than good.