Sacramento Public Library

Closing the 30 million word gap

New installation illustrates the disadvantage faced by many low-income children.
The 30 million word gap refers to a body of research that shows that children in underprivileged homes will hear 30 million fewer words than middle-class children by the time they reach age 5.

Local artist and educator Lawrence Fox has come up with a way to illustrate what 30 million words looks like. Using funds from the Microgrant Program at the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, he’s created an eight-foot high installation in the lobby of the Sacramento Central Library.

The concept is simple. A single sheet of standard paper, double-spaced, contains about 250 words. Multiply by 500 sheets in a ream, 10 reams in a box, you still need 24 boxes to paper to print 30 million words. These boxes stack up into a mountain of words about eight feet high.

If you used that paper to print the entire Bible (fewer than 775,000 words) and the collected works of Shakespeare (fewer than a million words), you’d still have more than 22 1/2 boxes left.
This difference of 7 million to 8 million words a year, year after year, can be very difficult to overcome. The number of words a child hears by age 3 is a strong predictor of their reading skills at age 9—and this can manifest as a 25 point difference in IQ.

These are not gaps that can be closed in a day. A typical middle-class child might enter first grade having been read to for at least 1,000 hours, while many lower-income children won’t have been read to at all.

A single parent working two jobs may not be in a position to read to their kids every night. But there are things you can do. The group Literacy Empowers All Families (LEAF) has tips and research for helping your child’s reading and vocabulary. Read with your kids when you can, and praise their efforts. According to LEAF, middle class kids hear 400,000 more words of praise and encouragement—and these may the most important portion of the 30 million words for future success.

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