12/18/2013 12:40 pm ET

Can We Disrupt Poverty By Changing How Poor Parents Talk To Their Kids?

Wendy Connett via Getty Images

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Small children in the most talkative homes hear, on average, 20,000 to 30,000 words in a day. That number may sound implausible. But all of the overheard conversations, nursery rhymes, and admonishments add up.

And, for upper-income children, they add up much faster than they do in homes deep in poverty. This creates a socioeconomic "word gap" between low- and high-income children.

This gap exists in the difference between reading and watching TV. It's in the difference between handing a toddler a bowl of cereal, and using that cereal as a ploy to talk about mouths and tummies. The gap widens because a low-income parent, who works two jobs, isn't around as much to talk to her children, or has less energy when she is home. And it grows because a child whose parents cannot afford a stuffed elephant may never have much reason to talk about elephants at all.