The Role of Overheard Speech in the Verbal Environments of Children from Five American Communities
Douglas Sperry

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College

Primary Discipline

Despite evidence that overheard speech (talk around but not addressed to the child) is abundant in homes of lower-income families and families of color, research underestimates its contribution to verbal achievement, due to a lack of contextual and cultural sensitivity in how it is measured.�  This lacuna is problematic given that (1) interdisciplinary evidence has shown that children do learn from overheard speech, and (2) the verbal strengths diverse children bring to mainstream classrooms are frequently overlooked.�  Grounded in the language socialization tradition, this mixed-methods study will assess the quantity and quality of overheard speech in five diverse American communities, measuring its impact on lexical diversity across the ages of 24 to 42 months.�  Two lines of inquiry are proposed.�  First, quantitative analyses, grounded in contextual appraisal of the content of overheard speech and childrenâ��s attention to it, will estimate the contribution of overheard speech to lexical diversity.�  Second, qualitative analyses will provide an ecologically valid description of the role of overheard speech in diverse homes. Together, these analyses provide a culturally sensitive evaluation of overheard speech that will afford educators a more nuanced understanding of the verbal strengths young children bring to the classroom.
About Douglas Sperry
Douglas Sperry (Ph.D., Developmental Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of language development in young children from diverse ethnic and social class backgrounds.  He has focused primarily on narrative development and vocabulary development.  His recently published research on the ambient vocabulary environments of children (funded by a NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship) was based on corpora analyses of extant longitudinal data collected ethnographically in five American communities.  This work challenges the Word Gap claim (Hart & Risley, 1995) that children living in poverty and children of color hear far fewer words than their more privileged counterparts.  Specifically, Sperry demonstrated that in certain minority communities, children living in poverty actually heard as much language spoken to them by their primary caregivers as did children from upper-class and middle-class families (Sperry, Sperry, & Miller, 2018).  Additionally, when the language spoken to the child by others and the language spoken around the child was considered, the number of words heard by these children far exceeded what the current literature predicts.  The latter (overheard speech) has heretofore been virtually ignored in accounts of young children?s verbal environments despite experimental evidence that young children learn both semantic and syntactic concepts from overheard speech.  Sperry?s work has been featured in reports by National Public Radio, The Atlantic, and the Brookings Institution among other venues.  He is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

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