Language Developmental Disparities in Children

By Rachel Katzke and Talia Katzke



Katzke R, Katzke T. Language developmental disparities in children. HPHR. 2023;74.

Language Developmental Disparities in Children


The way in which parents interact with their infants and young children influences their language development. Early language development is essential to a child’s later language development and cognitive skills as well as their educational outcomes. Therefore, parents must receive the proper education to support their child’s linguistic development. This education could help to improve the socioeconomic gap that currently exists between the development of high income and low income children.

The quality and quantity of language inputs, which are highly variable, are predictors of later cognitive development and overall health outcomes.1,2 This discrepancy in language exposure and development is what contributes to the word gap, first described by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley in 2003. They showed that families with professional and higher income jobs provided children with richer language environments and more language input than those from lower socioeconomic groups, such as working class and welfare families. In fact, the study found that after four years of life children of higher socioeconomic status (SES) heard 30 million more words than children of parents with lower SES .3 The word gap puts lower SES children at greater risk of academic failure, lower cognitive abilities, and subsequent lifelong adverse outcomes than those from higher SES homes.4


Children in higher SES environments experience more words of affirmation and encouragement and fewer words of discouragement compared with those with less advantaged peers. Parents with lower SES also offered more negative reinforcement than the parents with high SES, who offered more praise. The children from higher SES families also participated in more back and forth dialogue, which is essential to optimal language development1. These comparisons illustrate the differences in communication styles between socioeconomic groups. More words of affirmation together with more dialogue, typically seen in higher SES families, offers tremendous advantages.


SES also acts as an effective syntactic predictor, meaning that a child from a higher SES family can better anticipate what part of speech comes next in a sentence. Additionally, the diversity and complexity of a caregiver’s speech also predicts the diversity of a child’s speech later in development1. In this way, language exposure and learning has a cascading effect, meaning that a child’s early language development shapes their later learning and cognitive abilities. By knowing fewer words, children will have fewer ways to express themselves as well as peers with better vocabularies. And this language gap widens as the child grows, leading to greater inequities as time progresses on into adulthood.1


Despite our knowledge of this gap in language development, public health and educational policies currently in place do not address it concretely.4 Early childhood education begins at the preschool age, while linguistic development begins practically at birth. These early language experiences in the first few years of life serve as a critical foundation for later language acquisition.5 Therefore, any valuable interventions to combat linguistic inequities need to begin shortly after birth.


This gap between research findings on linguistic development and policy also is present in healthcare policy. A study on how mothers are educated about their infants’ language development found that most of the women who participated in the study received no communication from their healthcare providers regarding their child’s linguistic development.5 To combat these disparities, such education could take place during prenatal or postnatal care. This type of anticipatory education could drastically improve literacy development in young children.


In addition, a study on infant development found that parents with more knowledge of infant development were more likely than those with less such knowledge to foster a healthy emotional and cognitive environment for their children.6 Parent understanding of infant and early childhood development not only increases the quantity of conversation but also the quality of language spoken. For example, infant-directed speech is characterized by higher pitch and shorter sounds than other speech.7 Younger children learn more effectively when communicated with in this way.1


In recognition of the gap between research and tangible action to fight disparities, efforts currently are underway to provide low-income families with the means to support their children’s linguistic skills. For example, the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago currently has several evidence-based interventions, each tailored to be embedded within the current healthcare and educational systems to encourage and foster parent-child interactions.8 These include an educational video series for new mothers and skill-building groups that emphasize the 3Ts:


  1. Tune In: Be in the moment. This encourages parents to engage with their child and to be aware of what the child is experiencing to promote dialogue.
  2. Talk More: Use a wide variety of words. This promotes the use of a more complex and diverse vocabulary.
  3. Take Turns: Engage your child in conversation. This encourages back and forth dialogue, which is so crucial to language. development.

A tool created by Dr. Dana Suskind and her team at the TMW, called Scale of Parents’/Providers’ Expectations and Knowledge, or SPEAK, is essential to these interventions. The tool is an online, self- administered questionnaire, directed towards both administrators and parents, to determine their knowledge of early childhood language development. This tool plays a key role in the interventions of the center, as it can be used to determine their effectiveness by providing the survey to parents before and after the interventions. The goal is to implement these interventions on a broader scale and become commonplace in routine pre and postnatal care and education.


It is clear that disparities in language development are inherently linked to socioeconomic status. To bridge these disparities, research must continue to focus on the role of parental education, but interventions must be more proactive. Modeled to fit our current healthcare system, educational interventions to encourage rich and high- quality language environments at home and in communities are necessary and attainable. Only by increasing awareness of this issue and making widely known and available information about the importance of early language development to caregivers, pediatricians  and other health care providers, and communities can we start to narrow the language gap between socioeconomic groups. By developing tools that are easy to implement and understand, children can experience the cognitive benefits that come with early exposure to language regardless of SES. The long term impact of poor early childhood language development are also significant and include decreased adult educational opportunities, limited career prospects, and communication challenges. Further research into these long term consequences could inspire policy makers to implement strategies to decrease these educational inequiteis.

Disclosure Statement

I do not have personal, commercial, or financial interests that are relevant to the research and opinions represented in the work submitted to HPHR.


This manuscript is not currently under review by any other publication, and has not been previously published elsewhere.


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About the Author

Rachel Katzke

Rachel Katzke and Talia Katzke are research assistants at the TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health at the University of Chicago.

Talia Katzke

Talia Katzke is a high school senior at Riverdale Country School. Interested in linguistics and early childhood development, she is a research assistant at the TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health at the University of Chicago.