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The 35-Million-Word Gap and Your Child’s Auditory Processing Skills

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Hearing Words Under Five Makes a Huge Difference

There is a rearranging-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic aspect to America’s current efforts to reform its education system. And here’s why:  the wide disparity in school outcomes is, in large part, driven by the wide disparity in home lives of students. Most notably, the word gap.

Let us explain.  A famous study by Dr. Todd Risley and Dr. Betty Hart has shown that in the first four years of life, the children of professional families hear 48 million words — that’s 35 million more words than children from low-income households hear.  While well-off parents talk constantly to their children and expose them to all kinds of music, experiences, and places, children in poorer families tend to end up in day-care or live in empty houses.

This is important.  This added stimulation develops auditory processing and other cognitive skills.  If they don’t receive this stimulation, children arrive at school without the necessary cognitive skills for learning.  They have a harder time paying attention in class, they find it harder to learn to read, and they struggle with vocabulary and comprehension.

So what can you do?

Most importantly, talk to your child constantly.  Broaden his vocabulary, make him think while he is listening, and use grown-up language as much as possible.

And just as important is wordplay.  Reading and listening comprehension requires comfort with the language.  Rhyming is great, but making up new words and having fun with language will also help build language dexterity — the metalinguistic skills that make a foundation for future learning skills.

Music is another great way to stimulate listening skills at an early age. Experiments on mice placed in different listening environments show incredible growth where there is classical music as opposed to in other environments where there are limited sounds only.  In fact, there is now a range of therapies to improve auditory processing disorder based on classical music.

Finally, we would suggest to stay away from too much reading under the age of five.  Reading is a language skill.  If language processing skills are fully developed heading into Kindergarten, reading will come easily.  The first 3-4 years should be about learning to learn by developing critical auditory processing skills. Specialization or focus on reading will take away from this broader, foundational growth.

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