Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Shrinking the Word Gap

Telling stories to advance children's language development

The White House recently delivered a statement that we must shrink the word gap between middle-income and low-income children. Estimating from Hart and Risley’s (1995) ground-breaking research on the speech young children hear in the first three years of life, middle-income children enter school having heard 30 million more words than low-income children. This difference in oral language goes on to affect low-income children’s reading and school achievement. How do we shrink the word gap?

In the two decades since Hart and Risley’s study, researchers have been addressing that very question. One way to shrink the word gap is by encouraging low-income parents to read books with their children. But sometimes low-income parents have had difficulties in school themselves, and they do not feel as comfortable as do middle-income parents reading books with their children.

Fortunately, all parents are already having conversations with their children about everyday matters, so another way to shrink the word gap is through storytelling. In one study we conducted with low-income parents whose 4-year-old children were attending Head Start, we taught one group of parents to expand on their conversations about everyday events (rich reminiscing). We taught another group of parents to expand on their conversations about books (rich reading), and we sent new books home with those children throughout the school year. Another group of parents and children participated in the Head Start curriculum as they normally would.

The findings were clear (Reese, Leyva, Sparks, & Grolnick, 2010). At the end of the Head Start year, children whose parents learned rich reminiscing had significantly advanced narrative skills compared to children whose parents learned the rich reading techniques. The way we tested the children’s narratives was similar to what they would later be asked to do in kindergarten and primary school: we first read a new storybook to the children, and then we asked them to retell the story they had just heard. The children who experienced rich reminiscing with their mothers retold the stories in more advanced ways than children who experienced rich reading with their mothers. These advanced narrative skills are known to serve children well in their later reading comprehension (Reese, Suggate, Schaughency, & Long, 2010).

Of course, it’s important to read books to young children too as long as the experience is enjoyable for your child – and I would argue for the parent too. Rich reminiscing simply offers yet another way to foster young children’s language development. It is a promising tool to help shrink the word gap, but rich reminiscing also works for middle-income children (Reese & Newcombe, 2007).

Mother and child telling stories together

Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Choose a recent event (within the last few months) that you shared with your young child. An event your child enjoyed or brings up frequently works best.
2. After you’ve introduced the event to your child (Do you remember going to the zoo?) ask open-ended questions to get the conversation going (What did we see at the zoo? What did you like best about going to the zoo?). Open-ended questions are good because they get your child talking.
3. Once your child contributes something to the conversation, keep it going by praising your child’s response (That’s right! We saw a monkey) and then adding more about that part or asking a related open-ended question (What did the monkey do that was so silly?).
4. Continue following in on your child’s responses. Then bring up new aspects of the event when your child has said all he wants to say about that part (And what did we do after we saw the animals?)
5. Keep the conversation going as long as you’re both having fun – even a 5-minute chat can offer your child a rich language experience. These conversations crop up naturally many times over the day, so you can expand them if you’re at a time and in a place that works: in the car, in a line at the store, in a waiting room, doing art activities or play-doh together, at mealtimes, or before bed.

These techniques can also be adapted easily for toddlers (Reese & Newcombe, 2007). Here’s an example of a successful reminiscing conversation with a younger child:

Child: (sees train track while riding in the car) Choo-choo!

Parent: That’s right, it’s a choo-choo train track. What train did we see last weekend?

Child: Thomas!

Parent: Yeah, we rode a steam train, and you called it Thomas. What color was Thomas?

Child: Boo.

Parent: Blue, Thomas was a blue train, you’re right. Maybe we can go see Thomas again someday soon.

The great thing about rich reminiscing is that it’s free and completely portable, and your child is the star of every conversation. Best of all, it works!


Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

Reese, E., Leyva, D., Sparks, A., & Grolnick, W. (2010). Maternal elaborative reminiscing increases low-income children’s narrative skills relative to dialogic reading. Early Education and Development, 21, 318-342.

Reese, E., & Newcombe, R. (2007). Training mothers in elaborative reminiscing enhances children’s autobiographical memory and narrative. Child Development, 78, 1153-1170.

Reese, E., Suggate, S., Long, J., & Schaughency, E. (2010). Children’s oral narrative and reading skills in the first three years of instruction. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23, 627-644.