An Interview...

Dr. Todd Risley – Meaningful Differences in the Language Learning Environments of Young American Children

Dr. Todd Risley was the co-author of the landmark book "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children." He was Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska and a Senior Scientist at the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies at the University of Kansas. Dr. Risley authored more than 100 professional articles and book chapters and five books and monographs which have been widely cited and reprinted. Additional bio info

In collaboration with Dr. Betty Hart, Dr. Todd Risley led the most comprehensive research project ever conducted on the home language learning experiences of young children.

"Remarkable findings … ground-breaking…" — Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, Ph.D.

"Alerts us to how much each person’s future intellectual ability hinges upon his or her experience in the first years of life." — U.S. Senator Thomas Daschle

"From age 2 on, there exist large differences in children’s familiarity with unusual words, standard pronunciation, and complex syntax, a fact that was long suspected, but not well documented and quantified until the monumental research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley…." — E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

"[This] book may very well change our thinking abut how we arrange early experiences for our children, if not revolutionize our approach to childhood." — Journal of Early Intervention

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(see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.


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David Boulton: You’ve been on a learning journey that has taken you into this very rich space of understanding how critical it is for children to have certain kinds of language experiences in order to subsequently be successful in school. Let’s start with some background on how you came into your work.

Dr. Todd Risley: Well, what we started with was some failures in intervention. Betty Hart and I have been working together for thirty-five years, since 1965, actually almost forty years now. We set up a project in a poor African-American ghetto area in Kansas City called the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project and we began working on preschool interventions on language. This is before Head Start.

We were very successful in doing lots of things in terms of getting the children to talk more. We were also measuring what the professors’ and graduate students’ kids were saying in the preschools at the University of Kansas over at Lawrence. We were taking samples of what the children were actually talking about, how much talking they were doing and what they were saying in free play sorts of activities when there wasn’t any particular topic – when they were free to choose and interact. We did that with the poorer African-American kids from the poverty community, and with the professors’ kids at the university preschool.

We found that we could develop procedures to get the children of poverty to talk as much as the professors’ kids, indeed to say as many different words in a fifteen-minute sample as the professors’ kids.

But when we began counting up their vocabulary, what we saw was that the professors’ kids were adding new words that we hadn’t heard before, at a fast rate. The kids in Juniper Gardens, even though they were talking as much and saying as many different words in a fifteen-minute period as the professors’ kids, their vocabularies were not growing at that rate. So we became concerned with understanding the overall growth of vocabulary in children.

David Boulton: So you could get the children with less advantages to be as talkative, but their vocabulary growth was still lagging.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes, that was the issue.

We tried a whole bunch of things, not intending to teach children particular words, but to get their vocabulary growth going. All of the logical things that you would think of in terms of field trips and experiences and discussions about those experiences and all that stuff were, in a sense, ineffective in changing the slope with which we saw new words come into the children’s everyday speech.

So that’s where we were. That was the stimulus to say, “What is going on here?” We began looking for a particular variable that wasn’t about a particular word or concept or about learning a particular thing. We were looking for something larger, much more like the “g” in general intelligence.

We began to think about it and say, well, we have these children for about four hours a day, four days a week, so say, something like sixteen hours a week in our preschool. We know that children are awake about 110 hours a week. That is the amount a time a child is awake and able to learn something in a week. So the question was: What’s going on in those other hours?

Then we began to ask what went on before we ever saw these children, because they started in our preschool at age four. So we said, well, we need to think about what the daily lives of children are like. There was no literature on that. There was absolutely none, which was shocking when you think about it. We don’t know what happens to children hour after hour, minute after minute, in their lives. So that was the impetus to going back and saying: Let’s look at what’s going on in children before we ever see them in preschool, before they’re four, while they’re learning to talk. Let’s look at where vocabulary growth comes from.

Where Vocabulary Growth Comes From:

Dr. Todd Risley: So we began to round up children. We didn’t want an “us and them” view, we wanted to look at all kinds of kids, so we looked across the socioeconomic spectrum. We recruited children from birth announcements in the Kansas City papers. We contacted all the parents, a few weeks after birth, and said, “We’re interesting in documenting how children learn to talk, and could we come and talk to you about our study?”

We gathered whatever indications we could see in the birth announcements about the probable socioeconomic status, things like where they lived and so on. We tried to stratify children by socioeconomic status, so we had children of very affluent and highly educated families, children of white-collar business and other kinds of white-collar employees, children of blue-collar laborers, working poor, and then children whose families were on welfare. We had an equal stratification of African-American and Caucasian and we would call them and go and talk to them about what we were doing.

We wanted to observe children to see what they’re doing, how children learn to talk, and what comes in first, and how they add words. We also needed to know what they’re hearing and how it’s relating to what they’re learning. We started off when the babies were seven months old and we recruited fifty families. We ended up with forty-two families. We began going in for an hour a month at different times in the day, in the evenings, weekends, days, weekdays, and so on, of the children’s lives, to get some sampling of what actually goes on in the children’s daily lives. We began recording what the people were saying to each other, to the child, to each other in the child’s presence, what the child was doing before they were talking.

The Research Set-up:

David Boulton: When you say recording, how did you manage to record that?

Dr. Todd Risley: We had observers. We had an observer who kind of married each family who would go in once a month for an hour. They had to schedule and make an appointment, but in a sense it was trying to get a random sample of different times of the day. Once a month they would go in and follow the child around with a tape recorder and make notes about who’s doing what to whom, so that you could then transcribe those tapes.

David Boulton: So you’re looking for a language exchange that’s happening for the child and capturing different slices of it.

Dr. Todd Risley: A language exchange, but also nonverbal, too. We were looking at exchanges that weren’t just words, where the observer was making notes about people gesturing and so on.

The reason that we could come out with conclusions was that Betty Hart, who was the foreman of this particular project, made sure our research was done really well. From the very beginning we paid attention to all the details. We independently transcribed ten minutes or more out of fifty-six percent of the tapes, from the very beginning, so we could match. We’d go back and check how accurate the transcriptions were.

Anyway, we followed the children. We started taking serious data when the children were about nine months old, and we followed them through until they were thirty-six months old.

David Boulton: Wow.

Dr. Todd Risley: If you think about a page of typed manuscript, a page, single-spaced, with every line being an utterance of somebody saying something to somebody, we have about 30,000 pages in the dataset. It takes about eight hours to transcribe an hour of observation, and then it takes seven hours more to code it and put it into the computer. It’s an incredible amount of work.

David Boulton: And you managed to do this in a way that didn’t influence their normal talk behavior?

Dr. Todd Risley: Well, first, when we first contacted the family, we brought a couple with us and asked the parent: “Are you more comfortable with one or the other?” After meeting them we called them back on the phone and they indicated who they were more comfortable with. In a sense, over time, the observer began to be just like the visitors in the home in a regular part of people’s lives.

David Boulton: Right. It was really smart to create a gradual emersion so that by the time you really started doing the record keeping they were just part of the household background.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. In other words, there’s always reactivity you can’t avoid, but…

David Boulton: But you didn’t explicitly try to help them understand the significance of increasing their conversations.

Dr. Todd Risley: No, because we were looking at the child. We were focusing on the child and telling them we were focusing on the child. We wanted to know how the child learned to talk.

David Boulton: Right. And you did that in a way that didn’t interfere with their learning.

Dr. Todd Risley: It wasn’t until we’d collected our data that we realized that the important variable was how much talking the parents were doing. You see?

David Boulton: Which kept it nice and clean, because there was no bias introduced to the parents to behave in any other way than they normally would.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. Exactly. It was our ideas that we were looking for vocabulary growth and where it came from and how it came into play, so we thought we were focusing on the child, too.

So, after we had done that we realized that the massive dimension was the amount of talking… the differences. We couldn’t even see that while we were taking the data. It was about the amount of talking. Remember when parents are talking to one and two-year-old children, they’re talking about the same kind of things. It’s all about eating and feeding and possessions and toileting, and things like that, so it’s kind of invisible.

This difference that we found, which was the first discovery, was just massive differences between families in the amount of talking. We didn’t expect it. We weren’t looking for it. We were looking for teachable moments and whether parents capitalized on opportunities to expand the child’s vocabulary in formal ways, like we would as teachers. What we found instead was something really much more fundamental, which is just amount of talking.


Dr. Todd Risley: Okay. Now, we’re talking about babies. Remember, we’re not talking about kindergarten kids.

David Boulton: Right, you’re talking about zero-to-three right now.

Dr. Todd Risley: We started off at nine months old; they’re crawling, not talking. We end up at thirty-six months old, and they’re on their feet, eating adult foods, toilet trained and holding their own in the social world of the family as real people. But still at three, remember, they still need watching and care of an adult.

We’re still in that complete dependency part where the child’s safety and everything else are really hinged upon the oversight and attentiveness of a present adult. So it’s that early time that we’re talking about. So think of babies as more a better description than children.

David Boulton: Right. Toddlers.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes, infants and toddlers (see etymology of “infant”). But babies is probably a better idea because people keep slipping into kindergarten when you talk about children.

David Boulton: Now, I’m really clear and tracking with you. Parenthetically, one of the things I’m very interested in is the zero-to-three neuroscience literature that totally plugs into the same dimensions and overlaps with you.

Dr. Todd Risley: Absolutely. There’s a massive development that’s going on there. So let’s pursue that.

Coherent Engagement:

Dr. Todd Risley: If you think about the 110 waking hours of a child’s life – that’s how much time there is in a week, experience time – what we found is that for some children, that time is pretty empty and for other children it’s really fullNow, it’s not only empty in terms of language, it’s empty in terms of coherent activities.

David Boulton: I like the use of the word coherent.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. It’s things that make sense and that have some purpose or orchestration in them.

David Boulton: There’s some basis for a connected flow in their behaviors.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. Now think about it being full of things, but also an add-on dimension that is laying words on top of that. So, if you think about it in terms of central nervous system stimulation, you’ve got to engage kids where their lives are coherent, spending more time paying attention to things and doing coherent things. At the same time you’re getting them to overlay on top of that an additional dimension of stimulation.

David Boulton: Having to do with differentiating words that correspond to their differentiating experiences.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right, exactly. Then, of course, the other side of it is talkative parents produce talkative children. Taciturn parents produce taciturn children. So when children begin to talk, they end up being either talkative or taciturn depending on how much language dancing there is going on in the home.

Now, in addition to the hours of experience of words added in a talkative family, the child is adding words themselves by doing and watching and looking and handling.

David Boulton: Yes, which is lubricating the whole entire creative expression dimension as well.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right, the practice of becoming fluent and skilled in using language. So the differences in talkative families and taciturn families… the massive differences are there. That was the big discovery.

Kinds of Talk: Business Talk:

Dr. Todd Risley: The second discovery was that the content is ridden with certain kinds of talk. Everybody has to do a certain amount of business talk to a one and two year-old child.

“Stop that,” “get down there,” “hold out your hands,” “who gave you that?” All the stuff that has to do with…

David Boulton: Instrumental, instructional…

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes, business stuff that is intentional. Well, that’s not very rich language. That’s not complex. It’s here and now. It’s simple. It’s designed to be effective in communicating and getting what you need. In other words, business talk is not the stuff that we study as developmental psychologists associated with good outcomes. It’s not motherese, where you have sing-songy and interesting ways of saying things. It’s not guidance style and options; “wouldn’t it be better if,” and “shouldn’t you” – it doesn’t have complex adjectives and adverbs.

David Boulton: It’s not a rich learning environment, linguistically.

Dr. Todd Risley: It’s not a rich learning environment. It’s about simple things.

So we got a couple of measures of that and found that business talk happens about the same amount per hour no matter how much or little the parents talk to the child. That doesn’t change.

David Boulton: So that’s a baseline that is pretty common.

Kinds of Talk: Teachable Moments & Extra Turns:

Dr. Todd Risley: So, taciturn parents mostly talk about business. Their children, when they come to talk, mostly talk about business, about things that are absolutely critical to talk about; simple, direct, and here and now.

When talkative parents talk more they are not talking more business. They are talking about “what ifs,” and “remembers”, and the past, and all the elaborations. My guess is that the more esoteric things you look at, that you want to count in children’s experience, mathematics, quantities, and so on, social relationships, the more complex and sophisticated, the more likely they are to show up in more talkative families.

Because it’s about the esoteric, the topics are different. That was the second discovery. The first one was, of course, the difference in amount.

David Boulton: The sheer volume. And the second one was this…

Dr. Todd Risley: Was that all the good stuff that we as psychologists — Betty and I were looking for something we called “incidental teaching”; that’s capitalizing on the teachable moment to expand and elaborate your child’s comment or words. That’s where the best teaching happens. It always turns out that’s an automatic part of extra talk. It doesn’t have to be taught. It’s automatically there when you’re talking about extra things that are not business. If you’re talking a lot, then you begin to talk, begin to add all those interesting interactions. Talkative parents don’t start conversations more often. Whether there’s a taciturn parent or a very talkative parent, they start their interactions with their baby about as often. It’s that the talkative parents are taking extra turns responding to what the child just said and did, and elaborating on it, or responding to it, or caring — taking extra turns.

David Boulton: So they’re either intentionally or responsively extending the engagement.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. But I don’t think it’s intentional. We haven’t seen any evidence of anybody intentionally doing anything. It’s surprising.

Nope, we never saw anybody sitting down and teaching their child anything.

David Boulton: No, not intentional in that sense, but coming from their intention to actually elongate their interaction with their child rather than abbreviate it.

Dancing in Language:

Dr. Todd Risley: Here’s the best description for babies: dancing. Dancing because both partners are sustaining the dance. Do you see what I mean?

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Todd Risley: Automatically when you’re sustaining the dance, it becomes a little more rarified, and the dance steps become a little more complex. But if all your dance is just the first one, two, start, and that’s all your interactions and dancing practice is, it’s always simple.

That’s the other thing, see, people weren’t really interacting with their babies silently. That never happens. Talkative parents are parents who interact a lot.

With babies, think about it as dancing, and the human species adds words when they’re interacting. So it isn’t that you have a parent who is really involved with the baby and just not using words. It doesn’t happen that way. What you can translate talkativeness into is a social ability for interaction and sustaining an interaction with the baby. And the baby, of course, is motivated by sustaining the interaction with the parent.

David Boulton: Right. That’s what they’re starving for.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. So it’s kind of like, “Stay and play. Dance with me. Stay and play.” And that’s what we see with both parents.

Spectrum of Differences in Language Engagement:

Dr. Todd Risley: So, what actually is going on in 110 waking hours of the child is either a lot or a little. The average child is hearing about 1,500 words an hour addressed to them hour after hour after hour when they’re awake. And that’s true before they’re talking. Talkative parents were talking the same amount to their babies way before the babies ever answered them with words.

David Boulton: 1,500 words an hour?

Dr. Todd Risley: 1,500 words an hour on average. That’s the experience of the average American child. It’s our best guess. I mean, we’ve got forty-two kids, but they’re sampled. It’s the only look we have by the way, still the only data we have about the daily lives of children. But it’s our best guess.

So, you know, how big is this elephant? Well, it’s someplace in the neighborhood of about 1,500 words an hour. It’s what the average child is experiencing hour after hour in the bosom of their family. Now, that adds up.

What we found is that the more talkative parents, like the parents with college educations and the professionals like doctors and lawyers are hearing about 2,100 words an hour, hour after hour after hour. The children of welfare families were hearing about 600 words and hour, hour after hour after hour.

So we said, “All right, what was the difference in language input, in language experience, of the language they heard, words they heard in meaningful contexts?” We estimated that the average child, figuring 100 hours a week, by the time they were four, heard thirty million words addressed to them.

But the children of professional parents — I mean, talkative families and college educated — heard forty-eight million words addressed to them by the time they’re four.

Children in welfare families who were taciturn heard thirteen million words addressed to them by the time they were four.

Those are massive differences in language experience way before children enter school. Those differences were so large that we devoted the first book to focusing on them, on those massive amounts of differences.

Outcomes of Differences in Language Exposure:

Dr. Todd Risley: Let me skip ahead to our next discovery, which was how strongly the amount of difference in talking – in language experience – was related to outcomes.

We did a lot of things. We took our own data on what the children were saying when we were observing, which we liked because it said something very directly. We gave all of the children the Stanford-Binet IQ Tests at age three. The relationship between the amount of talking they heard, amount of parent talk, was related .6 to the child’s vocabulary size.

Now, when we refine that look, where we eliminate the business talk and only look at the extra talk, the extra talk above business talk, as correlated with theStanford-Binet IQ Test, was related to the child’s IQ test scores by .78.

David Boulton: Wow!

Dr. Todd Risley: Now, you can’t get any higher than that because remember the test/retest reliability of the Stanford-Binet is .81.

David Boulton: That’s about a strong a correspondence as you could get.

Dr. Todd Risley: Our test reliability was .967, something like that, depending on what you measure. So, you multiply those two together and that’s as much of the variance as you can get out of that data – a ‘strong’ relationship.

Correlations with Socioeconomic Status and Race:

Dr. Todd Risley: Now, the interesting thing is that when look at the amount of talking the parents are doing, and the amount of extra talk they’re doing over and above business talknothing is leftover relating to socioeconomic status. It accounts for all the variance.

In other words, some working poor people talked a lot to their kids and their kids did really well. Some affluent business people talked very little to their kids and their kids did very poorly. You see what I’m saying.

David Boulton: Totally. And it corresponds, as we said earlier, to information coming from the neurosciences. It makes sense.

Dr. Todd Risley: Absolutely. And there’s nothing left for race either. Remember, we stratified by African-American, and nothing left. All the variation in outcomes are taken up by amount of talking, the amount of talking in the family to the babies before age three.

Correlations with Third Grade Tests:

Dr. Todd Risley: We followed these same kids into the third grade. And you know the third grade is the break point in terms of literacy. Third grade and fourth grade is when symbols begin to be the curriculum.

David Boulton: Right. It’s where many children hit the wall.

Dr. Todd Risley: The relationship with what we saw the parents doing, the extra talk before the children were three, and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test scores at age nine in the third grade, is .77. Do you see what I’m saying?

David Boulton: I do.

Family Language Effect:

Dr. Todd Risley: And of course there are some things that go on between those two times, you know, in the six years in between that, of course, talkative parents stay talkative. But remember, after age three, the child is spending less and less time with the parents.

David Boulton: Less time with the parents, and they’re able to engage more and more in the world, depending upon their language base.

Dr. Todd Risley: Absolutely. That’s right, exactly. And they are either taciturn or talkative like their parents by that time. What they’re bringing to their world, in terms of their own language production and prompting and so on, is pretty well established by that time.

But not only the backlogs of massive amounts of language experience, you know, forty-eight million, thirty million words of experience that they have had addressed to them, but in a sense what they’re carrying forward from that time in terms of their own talkativeness and their own display on their side of the interactive dance with other people.

David Boulton: What a service you’ve provided by doing this. It’s incredible


Dr. Todd Risley: Well, it’s one of those remarkable things; it still thrills me. Again, it’s a discovery in the sense that we we weren’t looking for this. We didn’t know what we were going to find. Nobody had any ideas about what went on in children’s lives. I keep puzzling why it was invisible to us. Why is it that we didn’t know that? Why is it that everybody is responding to it like, ‘Wow, gee whiz, why don’t we see that?’

Well, it’s because you and I, our friends, are all talkative. And what we see people do with their kids is kind of common. We have very little experience being with taciturn people. On the other hand, when we do see them, they’re talking to their kids about the same kinds of things. The general topics of the daily lives and simple things and so on don’t differ that greatly in terms of parent talk to a one and two year-old child. So it’s invisible to us. It’s just like it takes a telescope to see something far away and it takes a microscope to see something really small, it takes something like a time scope to see things spread out in time.

David Boulton: Yes. We are trying to do the same thing with the code itself. For most of us it’s transparent. We do not experience the same kind of confusions the children are struggling with because we no longer experience them.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. Exactly right.

Family Effects:

David Boulton: Last night I talked with George Farkus and he made it really clear that from a sociological research point of view they’ve known for many, many years now, although they haven’t been able to get it across very widely, that eighty percent of the variation in public school performance result from family effects not school effects.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes, absolutely.

David Boulton: It has less to do with the school. Which ties pretty closely into the .81 you mentioned earlier.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes. Right.

Vocabulary underlies Literacy:

Dr. Todd Risley: The relevance of this work to reading and literacy is fairly new. In other words, again, people are talking about it in terms of development of early vocabulary and growth and learning to read and breaking the code. If you already had the oral vocabulary, you knew the words you were reading, you experienced them as part of your oral vocabulary, then reading was easy.

David Boulton: Well, it’s easier, right, because it’s easier for the code assembly and word recognition processes to snap into coherence rather than having to fuzz about in whether or not it’s a word or not a word, because you’ve never experienced it before.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes. There isn’t any built-in confirmation of breaking the code.

David Boulton: Right.

Dr. Todd Risley: Well, reading is not my area, but it was the relevance of that that people have begun to pick up and point out now.

Language Development and Emotional Health:

Dr. Todd Risley: Reading is an important application, but the earliest applications were as much to do with the affect as words.

In other words, what happens is that when you only talk a little bit, your business isn’t very fun. It’s a lot of prohibitions, very few affirmations telling you what you did was right. But in a sense, extra talk is full of affirmations; it’s all elaborations on what you just said.

David Boulton: It’s juicier and more poppy.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right, and very positive.

David Boulton: So you could say a great deal of children’s positive experiences come out of non-business conversations.

Dr. Todd Risley: Oh, yes. The difference is — when we counted up and did that kind of elaboration, how many affirmations an hour with talkative parents by the age of four, the children had heard about 750,000 times that they were right, and about 120,000 times that they were wrong.

And with very taciturn parents, it was almost the reverse, they only heard they were right about 120,000, and they had heard they were wrong about 250,000 times. In other words, the massive lifetime experience of these kinds of affirmations and prohibitions indicating you’re right and you’re wrong is…

David Boulton: Shaping the thresholds of your entire affect system.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. It’s a lifetime batting average that’s hard to overcome with just a little bit of positive experience.

Learning to Read:

David Boulton: It’s interesting that you bring in affects. Our view is that children are experiencing an artificial and unnatural form of confusion involved in using this code to create the virtual reality experience we call reading. It’s an artificial, code-induced, instructed, and informed assembly that depends on their level of oral language proficiency, and how well it matches up to whatever it is they’re attempting to read.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: And worse than this confusion, which is its own class of challenge, unprecedented in the evolutionary development of our brains is the context that they experience this confusion in causes them to feel like the confusion is a reflection of some fault in themselves.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: That precipitates the triggering of the affect shame. The more that it triggers, the easier it triggers, and then what we’ve got is a preconscious shame aversion to confusion. It decapitates learning.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right, right.

David Boulton: I mean, our concern with reading has less to do with the utility skill that’s acquired — for those that acquire it, that’s great — but rather to do with the negative collateral consequences to the kind of cognitive schema, the maladaptive, cognitive automations that form in children who shame-out along the way.

Language Overlays Social Dancing:

Dr. Todd Risley: If you looked at things like reading, but also all cognitively symbolic complex things that are kind of unique things to our species, if you will, it starts, at the very fundamental level in terms of dancing, in terms of social interaction on which language is laid.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Todd Risley: Language is laid on that by everybody. In other words, even the most taciturn parents had moments when they were talkative. Their talkativeness had all the features, in terms of positivity and complexity, and so on, that the more talkative people had.

In other words, the notion of social ability, of interaction — remember what I said was that it wasn’t people who didn’t interact with their babies a lot, just not talking. It never happened that way. Talking was laid onto social dancing.

And see, that’s where it starts. That’s where it kind of ends, because if you grow up in taciturn families who don’t dance very much, then you don’t dance with your kids very much. You see what I mean?

Now, when you get into more complex content, then you worry about the parents’ vocabulary size itself, you know, the complexity of the things they talk about, and so on. But with babies, you don’t have to worry about that. Every parent has got language that’s more complex than his or her babies.

People with very low education that were talkative were still doing all sorts of good things in terms of quantities and probabilities and what ifs, and relationships and time relationships, and all that stuff with their kids. So when you start this human game of symbolism, this human thing, people will start out, in terms of the micro culture of the family and their families, dancing a lot with their kids, or not — with their babies, or not. By the time you’re three, the experience differences are so large, as well as the neurobiological differences and so on, you can’t make up for them.

You can’t catch up. Remember, the average child is hearing 1,500 words an hour.

David Boulton: Yes, we’re talking about a 35 million-plus word gap difference in exposure and exercise.

Dr. Todd Risley: They can’t make that up.


David Boulton: That part is clear, as is the neuroscience side of this. Before we move on to the next part, I want to say that a number of the people we have talked with point to you. I mean, it runs across the gamut from George Farkus last night, to Siegfried Engelmann, to Marilyn Jager Adams, to other people that are in the reading research field. So you’ve caught on really well, and you’ve become a base reference for one whole part of the emerging argument.

At the neuroscience level, independent of awareness of this part of the conversation, without concern for or without awareness of this level of research, they’re really clear that what builds brain is the kind of distinctions being made in the soundscape in order to participate in language.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

David Boulton: So you could strip away all this conversation about sociological effects and research and the kind of research you’re doing, and just come at this from what we know from the inside out of growing brains, from brain research and end up in the same place.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right.

Disappointing Lack of Studies:

Dr. Todd Risley: Exactly. But we have the numbers on this side, a little. Betty’s and my greatest disappointment is that nobody else has done this work. I mean, isn’t that amazing that this is the only glimpse that we have of what happens in the everyday lives of children?

David Boulton: Yes, it is amazing.

Dr. Todd Risley: So our numbers are as good as you’re going to get, in terms of they’re pretty good, because you can talk about not just more or less, but how many per hour.

David Boulton: Right. And this important distinction between the instrumental or business talk, as you call it, and this other more extensional talk that’s not tied to business, and the difference in emotions experienced in the two.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right, exactly. If you begin to think about the numbers, you begin to think of things like, well, what about infant daycare? Well, let’s see, the average baby in a home environment is hearing 1,500 words an hour every hour they’re awake addressed to them. What’s happening in our infant daycare programs and centers? Do you see what I’m saying?

David Boulton: Right. So you’re disappointed that you haven’t caused a seeding of similar studies being done in other dimensions on…

Dr. Todd Risley: Also just replications. What about older kids? What about the notion about life after kids start reading, how much reading do they do?

David Boulton: Right. And we don’t know anything about whether or not we could compensate for this yet, because we haven’t factored it in sufficiently to begin that thought process.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right, exactly. I think that the next window of opportunity is literacy. I mean, that’s where a lot of us got out of the middle class, which was reading with our flashlights under the covers at night. You know, because our mother would say, “Turn off the lights.” And it’s that kind of millions and millions and millions of words, in words with words experience.

David Boulton: Those kind of semantic differentiations, that are building and snowballing in the development of intelligence.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

Reading: The Differences Add Up:

David Boulton: Well, there’s an enormous connection here. I think you’ve done very important work that, among other things, connects the dots between work being done at Head Start, Even Start, National Center for Family Literacy, and other locations.

It seems that it boils down to this: if we look at all the different things that we measure about children and the risk factors they have for having great lives or having lives that are diminished and impoverished and so forth, the greatest single risk factor that we can get a handle on is how well they come through reading.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

David Boulton: I mean, it all but fates their lives.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right.

David Boulton: And it’s costing us. We’re getting arguments that indicate at least a half a trillion dollars, and perhaps closer to a trillion dollars a year.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: It’s harming a significant part of our population’s psychological and intellectual well-being because the maladaptive learning scripts that are forming in relation to this confusion effect all these other things.

Now we get to reading, we double-click on reading; what’s involved in it? Well, there’s really three different fields that are co-implicating one another. One, and the ground of the others, is general language proficiency.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: The second thing is the overlay of the code, which acts like a piano scroll to the piano playing that language, at least until that system coheres and it can start to transcend the spoken language part in the reading.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: Then enveloping the first two is: How they feel about themselves when engaged in learning to read? Because that changes the threshold with which they shame out.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.


David Boulton: So you’re right at the ground of where reading breaks down. The primary focus in educational policy circles is to invest in instructional strategies, methodologies and materials for K-4, which is where they consider to be the fulcrum, and rightfully so, in terms of where they can get traction right now.

But the other side of it is that we are spending ninety-eight percent of our money and resources trying to compensate, trying to work in an area that’s only causing a very small part of the variation in performance.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: That the real problem is happening underneath where we’re locating our lenses, where we’re positioning our levers.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right. Well, my notion is this: I have been telling people there are lots and lots of parenting programs and home visiting programs and Even Start, and so on. I’ve been talking with Even Start right along. But what is needed is an add-on because, in a sense, cognitive psychology, people who are interested in cognition have kind of missed this point, and that is: It’s not about just the things you talk about, it’s how much talking is going on.

David Boulton: Right. Well, I think that the neuroscientists get that (12). There are questions about how the amplitude of meaning-relevance changes the depth of learning.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: But in terms of just the general dexterity with differentiation, that’s volume.


Dr. Todd Risley: Yes, exactly. But especially very early. See, it becomes simpler when we talk about babies.

David Boulton: Right. Have you encountered Patricia Kuhl’s work?

Dr. Todd Risley: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, I was going to mention that to you because it’s very specific about early exposure and learning speech codes (Kuhl-pdf), it doesn’t take very much of it, but it was about the fact that video didn’t do it. It had to be interactive.

David Boulton: Yeah, with a real live person to which there’s an emotional relationship that’s the basis of the engagement.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right, exactly. It’s the emotional relationships and interactions. But what I keep doing is telling people that what we need to do is to add the component of talkativeness, of chattiness to every message we get to every parenting interaction educational program. Because we’ve been misdirecting parents by talking about things like motherese, or topical richness, or whatever it is, as if we have to change what people do as if they’re doing it wrong. They’re not. Those things automatically come with chatty people.

What we need to do is focus on chattiness, on talking, on talking aloud, commenting what the child is doing, commenting on what you’re thinking. That’s what that Bureau of Indian affairs tape I did was good at demonstrating.

Kind of commenting, not just, ‘I’m going to sit down here and read a book with you or I’m going to ask you questions.’ It is where the vocabulary has to come from. It can’t come from anyplace else except what you hear.

Stewarding The Health of Learning: Bathing in Language:

David Boulton: Yes. I’m interested in us getting a similar message into parents, that they can take as a center to act from, which has to do with stewarding the health of learning.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

David Boulton: We want to help people see stewarding the health of learning as the organizing rubric. That with respect to children’s learning very early, the number one thing that you can do to steward the health of their learning is to immerse and engage them in this language bath.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right, and kind of a silly bath. It isn’t important things. It’s silly things, it’s joking and commenting and talking.

David Boulton: Well, it may not be important to the adult, but that’s exactly what’s important to the kid.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right.

David Boulton: It comes down to one of the things that’s so difficult for adults is to break out of the frame of reference they experience reality in.

Parent-Baby Dancing and Head Start:

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes. What I’ve been doing is recommending that somebody needs to be making example videos, not of any instructional techniques, but of parents dancing with their babies in the car, in the stroller, while they’re doing things, folding the clothes, in the shopping cart. I mean, it’s wherever they are, wherever parents spend time with babies. They need to be examples that look enough like whoever it is you’re working with for them to identify with, of people doing the chatty silly things with babies.

That’s where social learning starts. It’s easy. But there are lots and lots of programs that have got a lot of content and are organized to interact with parents, but almost none of them have that feature.

David Boulton: Well, I think there’s a great movement that’s heading in your direction. We interviewed Sarah Greene, who is the Director of the Head Start Association, which is the professional organization that Head Start practitioners participate in. She said as much, that a few years ago they thought it was taboo to engage in explicit instruction and they also were unconscious to the parent language dimension. But now they teach their people to go through the world and observe the conversations that are going on between parents and children as a way of kind of dropping into this. Greene did a good job of describing their movement in this direction.

I’m doing work with the National Center for Family Literacy, and they’re the ones that gave me the video of yours. You’ve got a number of advocates and fans there. And of course they have had a big influence on Even Start.

So, I think there is a movement that you’ve awakened with your work that’s getting these organizations that are working closer to the family to start to carry this as an organizing priority.

What’s Missing in Mainstream Thinking:

Dr. Todd Risley: Right. You know, I went back and looked at the instructional books and the basic textbooks on child development and in other places, and seeing what people said about talking. It turns out they didn’t say very much. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in their monthly news handout, the one pediatricians send to parents with new babies every month for the first two years of the baby’s life, they don’t talk about talking to your baby until the twelfth month. It’s sort of like, ‘Well, because that’s when the baby is starting to talk.’ Well, they’ve missed it.

David Boulton: It’s a matter of what they consider to be the start of the baby learning to talk. The baby is starting to learn to talk before it’s born.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right. And parents that are talkative didn’t change the amount they talked to the baby when the baby started to talk.

Meaningful Differences:

Dr. Todd Risley: Parents, if they were talkative, were talkative that amount to their seven month old baby. If they were taciturn, they were talking about that little to the baby when they were seven months old. In both cases it continued all the way, at about that same amount, all the way through thirty-six months, when the child was relatively established talker.

David Boulton: So again, you’ve actually shown that this underlying developmental difference, occasioned by this language exposure/experience engagement difference, carries its imprint all the way through to the third grade.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right, exactly. We followed the kids up to the third grade. Then we looked at the relationship between what we saw the parents doing, their talkativeness in the early years and the child’s oral IQ test and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. When the kids were nine in the third grade, both tests correlated that same high amount to the early parent talkativeness.

David Boulton: I think it’s so good that you’ve done this.

Language and Cultural Transmission:

Dr. Todd Risley: On the social and the cultural side, I’ve talked not only with, of course, Navaho and Native Americans, and I’m on the board of some programs that deal with tribes, but also I’ve done this in New Zealand with the Maori people, working with the universities. I was trying to deal with this issue about some cultures are taciturn and some cultures are talkative. And I said, “Well, I’m not sure that’s true, that there’s probably more difference within in a culture in terms of talkativeness and taciturnity than there is between cultures, and that the leaders are from the talkative members of the culture.”

David Boulton: So this could be an artifact of the generational transmission of social dynamics within a culture.

Dr. Todd Risley: Remember, with Native Americans, we’re working with the Native Americans who are in trouble. With the Hispanics, we’re working with the Hispanics who are in trouble. With the African-Americans, we’re working with African-American families who are in trouble.

So we get kind of this notion that those cultures are, in a sense, taciturn. But it’s the taciturn members of those cultures that we’re working with.

David Boulton: It’s the strata within those cultures that have learned to be taciturn in the structure of that culture.

Dr. Todd Risley: Exactly. The micro culture of their family, their own personal family.

David Boulton: Yes. Well, it’s really clear that ninety-five-plus percent (12of the variation in human literacy abilities are learned.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s right.

David Boulton: That’s why I come back to “stewarding the health of learning” as the centerpiece.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: This is another example of that. Here we are looking for some kind of other variation, and it’s the nested cultural-family learning environments that these children are growing in.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes, that’s right. This work is so interesting because so many people are finding it. For example, somebody at Gallaudet was going to be doing her dissertation on children learning sign language, deaf children learning, and putting video cameras on little hats so that they can record what the children — the language input that the children are actually seeing, of deaf children. Then in the spring I’m going to the association of people who are doing cochlear implants. So those are the two sides of the political side of the deaf community.

David Boulton: That’s great. Well, I think that your work really needs to be lifted up and become a reference that people have to deal with. I mean that in the sense that it’s a challenge, it’s a stop sign. It’s, “Look, we’ve got to deal with this.”

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

Family Literacy:

David Boulton: Have you had any interactions with the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL)?

Dr. Todd Risley: Oh, yes, of course I have.

David Boulton: What draws me to them is that they’re a national non-governmental organization whose primary interest is language and literacy development in the family environment.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right.

David Boulton: And so many other organizations are dealing with the child or they’re dealing with the adult, or they’re dealing with the school, or they’re dealing with the preschool. But the NCFL is trying to lift the family. So I’ve been trying to understand what they’re doing, what’s working, what’s not working. I come to them with a certain appreciation for their domain of focus.

Dr. Todd Risley: I think there’s something elegantly focused about this, because we can talk about all the good things about social dancing, and interactive, but really, fundamentally, the human species, the change in our civilization has been around reading.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s an elegant focus for all the reasons, I mean, for the reasons for doing anything is tied in with — it’s the upward mobility of American families. So it’s tied in with everything. So it’s nicely focused on reading, you can keep at that and still add all the other things to it.

Children of the Code:

David Boulton: Right. I think, again, the reason to focus on reading is it is the biggest single obstacle to the health of learning.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

David Boulton: I mean, it is the nation’s greatest learning disability.

Dr. Todd Risley: But it’s also the upward mobility. People think about symbolism in general.

David Boulton: Oh, absolutely. When I talk about Children of the Code, we’re going all the way back to the beginnings. We’re doing a piece on the anthropological and genetic history of the development of language.

Dr. Todd Risley: That’s wonderful.

David Boulton: Then we will travel from there to the beginnings of external symbol systems and what happens when speech stops in front of our eyes and allows us to think about it, instead of just being bathed in it. And the kind of reflectivity that literacy brings, and its effect on the world. From the beginnings of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to the emergence of science, the world we live in today comes from what this code made possible. We are children of the code.

Dr. Todd Risley: If you look at that and then you look at the differences within a culture that’s being carried along with that. You know, you have this lean effect sort of thing, where things are going up all the time, but in a sense, you have upward mobility in general yet real differences between the “us and them,” if you will, within a culture.

David Boulton: Yes, and in this case, we’ve got 100 million people (12) whose lives are diminished because they didn’t get through reading well.

Dr. Todd Risley: Right. Yes.

David Boulton: And again, once we get to the reading thing, there’s a code confusion that’s engendered because it’s a 450 year-old code (12) that’s pretty confused. But underneath it all, it’s language processing.

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

David Boulton: And underneath that is exposures and engagements in the home.

Back to Language and Emotions:

Dr. Todd Risley: I’m doing something with the Center for Disease Control on family violence prevention. It’s kind of a related area of expertise. What I’m sort of doing examining the amount of strokes a child gets, you know, the issue of interaction where there’s emotional learning. My notion is that it’s a healing process; that it’s maybe the relevance in terms of avoiding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other kinds of shutdowns is how much of your life is full of things that engender positive emotions.

David Boulton: Well, that causes me to wonder, have you read Sylvan Tomkins’ work?

Dr. Todd Risley: No. What is it on?

David Boulton: On the relationship between affect, imagery, and consciousness.

Dr. Todd Risley: Oh, yes.

David Boulton: Have you read Don Nathanson?

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

David Boulton: His work on the compass of shame and how it effects our behavior and leads to so much social difficulty. To the extent that you’re buried in negativity, how do you and the ones that care about you build some kind of an efficient stairway through that to positivity?

Dr. Todd Risley: Yes.

In Closing:

David Boulton: Excellent. Well, it’s been a great honor and pleasure to speak with you, sir.

Dr. Todd Risley: Well, I’m delighted. It’s a wonderful thing you’re doing. I mean, now I appreciate the scope of what you’re doing. It’s called information improvement, which is the prime issue in knowledge advancement: How do you put things together in ways that are easily understandable and communicable to other people.

David Boulton: That’s what we’re trying to do, is synthesize this into something that’s more ecological and easy to learn.

Dr. Todd Risley: You’re talking about a big thing. People see pieces of it and you’re putting a whole lot of things together that no individual one of us has a grasp of, so good.

David Boulton: Well, thank you. I appreciate hearing that. I’m so appreciative of our connection. What I’d like to do is keep the door open, loop you in as things develop.

Dr. Todd Risley: Okay. We’ll talk to you later then.

David Boulton: Take care.