The Word Gap

Posted by on October 31, 2013

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

It is now well established that children’s oral language development is crucial to their academic success, with the documentation of profound differences in word learning and the acquisition of content knowledge between children living in poverty and those from more economically advantaged homes. By the time they enter school, children from advantaged backgrounds may know as many as 15,000 more words than their less affluent peers. This early language gap sets children up to be at risk for other all too familiar gaps, such as the gaps in high school graduation, arrest and incarceration, post-secondary education, and lifetime earnings. So, what can we do to prevent this “early catastrophe”?

If a child suffers from malnutrition, simply giving him/her more food might not be sufficient to alleviate the problem. A better approach would be to figure out which specific foods and supplements best provide the vitamins and nutrients that are needed, and then deliver these to the child. Recent press coverage on the “word gap,” spurred by initiatives such as Too Small to Fail and Thirty Million Words, suffers from a similar failing.

Don’t get me wrong, the initiatives themselves are hugely important and have done a truly commendable job of focusing public attention on a chronic and chronically overlooked problem. It’s just that the messages that have, thus far, made their way forward are predominantly about quantity – i.e., exposing children to more words and more talk – paying comparatively less attention to qualitative aspects, such as the nature and especially the content of adult-child interactions.

Lisa Guernsey from the New America Foundation wrote a useful review here, sounding a note of caution:

… one thing we will need to watch is whether the tip towards talk becomes relegated to a dumbed-down quest for pushing a set quantity of vocabulary words instead of a blooming movement that helps parents recognize the power of conversation and interactions with their kids. (…) Children not only need more words from mom and dad, they also need more opportunities to express themselves and ask questions.

This is an important point, although my impression is that the new initiatives do, in fact, attempt to draw attention to the importance of two-way conversation. After all, the slogan of Thirty Million Words (TMW) initiative is the three Ts: “Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns.” The question for us: Talk more about what?

Over the years, there have been many voices – most notably E.D. Hirsch, but also Susan Neuman, Daniel Willingham, and we here at the Shanker Institute – promoting an alternative, more strategic approach to ensuring that young children acquire background knowledge and a broad vocabulary. After all, words are just the tip of the iceberg; a vocabulary gap is what we see but what’s underneath is a gap in children’s background knowledge and in opportunities to acquire it (also here). So, if we are serious about addressing knowledge disparities between kids from affluent and disadvantaged homes, a blunt force approach focused heavily on word quantity may not be sufficient.  

Next Steps: What Words? How Do We Teach Them?

As a recent book by Susan Neuman and Tanya Wright explains, vocabulary is crucial to learning because it’s children’s entry to knowledge and the world of ideas. So, for these purposes, some words matter more than others. Just because a word is rare or seems hard, it does not automatically mean that it is important or that we should bother teaching it to our young children. Unfortunately, Neuman laments, “we’ve managed to get publishers off ‘cat,’ but they’ve swung over to ‘platypus.’”

Second, how we teach words also matters. This is not about teaching vocabulary for vocabulary’s sake, but about introducing children to concepts in ways that facilitate independent learning. When children learn words in isolation, with little attention paid to how they words fit within broader ideas, they tend to forget them just as quickly as they learn them, because they do not understand their relationships. By contrast,  

When we teach words in meaningful clusters, it creates a self-teaching device that supports independent learning. In a sense, you are building a powerful schema for children that will enable them to attend better to new words, understand them, and retain them in a way that is easily accessible for future reference. For example, when we teach words such as coyote, giraffe, leopard, and rhinoceros in a meaningful semantic cluster, and teach children that they are all wild animals with a number of common features, children can begin to make the following generalizations about these animals: Wild animals are animals that live outside and away from people. Wild animals are not tame.

When children are introduced to a new wild animal, for example hyena, children already have a frame of reference where they can easily slot the new information, and make inferences and generalizations about it. By teaching words this way, we are providing children with a means of structuring information that is efficient and accessible, which in turns accelerates children’s acquisition of new knowledge. According to Neuman:

It is only through this self-teaching device that children will be able to accumulate the estimated 15 words a day—or 5,000 words per year—with very different degrees of complexity and precision that children will need in order to successfully become career- and college- ready.

While the message above is fairly complex and not that easy to summarize and tweet, there is a body of knowledge and research suggesting that it needs to be incorporated into the conversation and into the programs that will hopefully grow out of it: Parents and caregivers need to know that it is the combination of quantity, quality, and responsiveness of talk that helps promote growth in their children’s cognitive ability. In fact, a recent review of research by the Foundation for Child Development concluded that “the most important aspects of quality in preschool education are stimulating and supportive interactions between teachers and children and effective use of curricula.” In other words, responsive adult-child interactions “that help children acquire new knowledge and skills provide input to children, elicit verbal responses and reactions from them, and foster engagement in and enjoyment of learning.”

One telling anecdote recounts a late night visit to the grocery store, where the teller observed three moms interacting with their children about a pile of eggplants. Pointing to an eggplant, the first child asked, “What is that?” The mother replied: “I don’t know. Shut up, don’t ask me any questions.” The second child posed a similar question and his mom said, “It’s an eggplant, but we don’t eat it.” Then the third child asked the same thing, and her mom replied, “It’s an eggplant; one of the few purple vegetables we have. Look at its smooth and shiny skin, its exterior. (…) Let’s buy this eggplant, take it home, slice it open and see how it looks inside.”

I like the story because it illustrates how putting into practice the ideas above – i.e., both quantity and quality matter – does not have to be all that complicated. Parents can support language development and learning in simple, everyday contexts and situations. The talkative mom isn’t just using more words. She is transmitting meaningful information (e.g., an eggplant is a vegetable) and promoting the idea that the word “eggplant” – and the related subjects of color, texture, food, vegetables, cooking – are worthy of inquiry and exploration (e.g., let’s take it home and slice it open).

Young children, even babies, are eager to understand the world around them. They actively strive to build knowledge and to develop language to communicate with those around them about what they learn. They develop and test theories about how the world works; they learn to solve problems; they ask questions in a constant quest for information. And, when provided with supportive and stimulating environments, they thrive – before, during, and after formal schooling. If we want all children to enter school ready to learn, to read proficiently by the end of third grade, and to grow into healthy teens and productive adults, the early years and oral language are the time and place to start – and a focus on quality as well as quantity is the way to go.

- Esther Quintero

If you are interested in this issue, check out “Early Childhood Education: the Word Gap and the Common Core,” a public conversation taking place December 11th 2013. Join us!


2 Comments posted so far

  • Research done in the 90s indicated that children from disadvantaged communities entered school with an auditory vocabulary of 25,000-3,000 words. Children from less stressed communities entered school with an auditory vocabulary in excess of 50,000 words.

    It is not the words – it is the scaffolding of language development that occurs when adults engage young children (and children of any age) in meaningful conversation. It is asking questions that require more than “Yes/No” answers or one to three word descriptors.

    Focusing solely on vocabulary will result in the flash card programs that were prevalent in the 80s and 90s for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. What we end up with are children who can label, sort, categorize – but who cannot relate one piece of information to another; do not understand that there is a context for the information, and have little sense of how things work or fit together.

    For this to work, the PARENTS have to be educated on how to talk with their children – they do not have this in the “Mommie and Me” play groups or in the books available to parents. And I am not sure you learn this through written media – it is something you have to see someone model for you. A grandmother, maybe.

    Comment by Ellen Chavez
    November 5, 2013 at 7:06 PM
  • This is a good example of doing research through a deficit-based lens.

    Comment by Diane
    November 6, 2013 at 11:48 PM

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