Betty Hart, 1927-2012

Pioneering scientist
Co-author, seminal study on child language

Update: on October 25, 2012, thanks to the efforts of Dale Walker, Ph.D., the New York Times published an extensive obituary of Betty Hart.

Note: Associate Professor Emeritus Betty Hart died on September 28, 2012, at the age of 85. She was working on her latest book up to the night before her death. Life Span Institute John Colombo said that Hart’s work contributed enormously to the understanding of the impact of the environment on the development of language in children and to the development of strategies for promoting communicative development in both typically developing children and children with disabilities. Among the discussions of Hart and Risley’s work in the media is this 2011 National Public Radio interview.

Official KU statement.

The Meaning of Meaningful Differences

This year the contribution of the Betty Hart and the Todd Risley to understanding child language development received yet another honor: this time showcased as part of an1800-square-foot exhibition, The Wonder Years, in the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.Betty Hart

Hart came to KU as a graduate student from the University of Washington in the mid-1960s along with Todd Risley, (her mentor and main collaborator), Montrose Wolf andVance Hall. All were destined to move the science of behavior analysis into service of the problems of poor, urban neighborhoods and the University of Kansas to international acclaim.But it is perhaps Hart and Risley’s 1995 book, Meaningful Differences, that is the most recognizable benchmark of LSI’s early years. The book was based on their seminal study of early experience and language acquisition by children at home that showed a stunning 30-million-word difference between the number of words children from the least and most affluent homes heard by age 3.

At the Friends of the Life Span 2012 annual dinner, Associate Research ProfessorDale Walker highlighted the impact of Hart and Risley’s work at the local, national and international levels. Walker, along with other LSI Juniper Gardens Children’s Project researchers, followed the original Hart and Risley sample from kindergarten through the third grade and showed how the amount of language experienced by children predicted their later vocabulary development, early literacy and school performance. They then identified and tested practices that parents and childcare teachers could use to increase the amount of talk to children at home and in child careto improve infant-toddler outcomes.There are currently more than 3,000 citations to Hart and Risley’s book and it continues to sell as well in 2012 as it did in 1995.

Their work has influenced legislation and funding of early intervention and parenting education programs nationally and internationally. Meaningful Differences has influenced technological innovation at KU in assessments documenting adult and child talk and progress monitoring of the communication of infants and toddlers. The LENA® system, developed by the LENA Research Foundation, uses digital software to capture and analyze utterances between adults and children.The legacy of Hart and Risley’s Meaningful Differences even includes national and international community change projects designed to increase parent-child interaction. One campaign, headed by Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry, used lessons from Meaningful Differences to influence a Mississippi town to improve parenting skills. As described by KU Distinguished Professor Mabel Rice at the time of its publication, “This is scientific endeavor made real.”


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