More Effective, Less Expensive, Still Controversial: Maximizing Vocabulary Growth In Early Childhood
Our guest author today is Lisa Hansel, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers.
With all the chatter in 2013 (thanks in part to President Obama) about expanding access to high-quality early childhood education, I have high hopes for America’s children finally getting the strong foundation of knowledge and vocabulary they need to do well in—and enjoy—school.
When children arrive in kindergarten with a broad vocabulary and a love of books, both of which come from being engaged in conversations with caregivers daily and being read to frequently, they are well prepared for learning to read and write. Just as important, their language comprehension makes learning through teacher read-alouds and conversations relatively easy. The narrower the children’s vocabulary and the fewer experiences they’ve had with books, the tougher the climb to come. Sadly, far too many children don’t make the climb; they mentally dropout in middle school, and are physically adrift soon thereafter.
I can’t blame them; I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to be 6 years old and 2 years behind, or 13 years old and 5 years behind. But I can imagine an education system that does not let children down. It would start prenatally, to ensure healthy babies and parents who know the importance of conversing and reading with their children. It would be collaborative and community-oriented from infancy through high school, with schools, parents, day care centers, libraries, after school programs, museums, and other local resources building meaningful partnerships to give all children enriching experiences every day. It would be well funded, frugal, and wise, focusing on building broad knowledge, vocabulary, and skills while preventing achievement gaps through rapid, early interventions.
That dream is what keeps me going in the nutty education policy world. Every once in a while I get a glimmer that others have a similar dream, and that in fits and starts, we’re making progress. So it was at “Early Childhood Education: The Word Gap and the Common Core,” a forum hosted by the Shanker Institute and the AFT.
While the whole panel was interesting, Susan Neuman stole the show. Her 15-or-so-minute presentation is well worth watching. She kicked off with the perfect metaphor: Words are just the tip of the iceberg.
The concepts and knowledge—and the opportunities to acquire them—are underneath the words. So when we talk about the word gap, Neuman explained, we’re really talking about a knowledge and concept gap. That gap has consequences. Vocabulary and knowledge in early childhood are very strong predictors of achievement in high school. The more you know, the easier it is to learn. (The Shanker Institute has produced a terrific three-minute video on words as the tip of the iceberg that explains simple ways to build children’s vocabularies.)
Neuman reviewed Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s now-famous research into the enormous differences in how and how much different families, on average, speak with their children. In addition to the huge gaps in vocabulary that result, Neuman noted the devastating consequences of the affective differences. Children growing up in lower-income families tend to hear more negative comments and directives, as well as fewer encouraging remarks, than children in higher-income families. In a somber reminder to parents and teachers, Neuman said, “Children will stop asking questions when their questions are never answered.” And so the knowledge gap grows.
She then took us on a quick run through essential findings, providing concise and compelling explanations along the way. Here are some highlights:
- By the end of high school, students need to know tens of thousands of words.
- Students need to learn academic, content-rich, topic-specific words.
- Reading comprehension depends on having relevant vocabulary (and the knowledge that vocabulary represents).
- Vocabulary is largely learned indirectly, through multiple exposures, but that does not mean it is learned without support.
- Effective vocabulary instruction intentionally exposes students to lots of words and creates ways for those words to be practiced.
- Adults need to make children conscious of words by intentionally using challenging, unusual words—words that stir their curiosity.
- Oral language is the foundation for later reading and oral vocabulary growth is critical before, during, and after children learn to read.
- Reading aloud is extremely important because texts contain many words that are hardly ever used in speech.
- Grouping texts (including fiction and nonfiction texts) by topic into coherent categories is essential for quickly building vocabulary.
There’s only one thing I would add to Neuman’s presentation: intentionally sequencing the categories. Neuman was quite strong on explaining the need to create meaningful knowledge networks. Instead of jumping from one text and topic to the next, teachers should stay focused to give children time to hear topic-specific words in multiple contexts and to start using those words. What Neuman did not mention (but I’d like to think she would have if she had more time) is going one step further by arranging the topics and categories so that they also build on each other. Spending two to three weeks on dinosaurs, for example, is great. Then following up (in the current grade and in later grades) with related units on earth science, asteroids, and birds, for example, is even better.
If you have another 15-or-so minutes to devote to this early childhood forum, one other panelist also stood out: Barbara Bowman. She hammered home the need to address poverty, from lack of prenatal care to poor nutrition to unemployment to weak schools. And she reminded those of us focused on education that we can—and must—help ameliorate the achievement gap, but that we will not close it alone. Explaining the differences between home language and school language, she reminded us that virtually all children have sophisticated language knowledge and skills. This is important to recognize because children with minimal school language are often mistaken for children with minimal capacity to learn. That’s a terrible misconception; all that such children need is more, and more effective, opportunities to learn school language.
The one point on which I disagree with her is the utility—or lack of utility, from her perspective—of several new campaigns to get parents to talk with their children more. Bowman thinks such initiatives will be of limited value because (1) they won’t expand parents’ vocabularies and thus children won’t be exposed to any greater variety of words and (2) just providing the information on the importance of talking more will not have a lasting impact because people tend to go back to whatever they used to do fairly soon after such campaigns end. For sustained change, Bowman emphasized the need for whole communities (such as mothers who regularly interact and share parenting ideas) to change. She seemed to think that a cultural shift, rather than an individual-focused behavioral intervention, was needed.
I’m more optimistic about the potential impact of Too Small to Fail, the Thirty Million Words Initiative, Providence Talks, and the Shanker Institute’s Let’s Talk because (1) all parents know a lot more words than they routinely use in conversation with their children and (2) if these campaigns are ongoing, then perhaps the effects will be like saturation advertising and result in more permanent, widespread changes in attitudes and behaviors. With our least-advantaged toddlers, even small changes like talking about colors and sizes while folding laundry would help.
Where Bowman and I agree completely is on the need to start early. Bowman highlighted the Abecedarian Project, noting that it started in infancy to prevent a language gap from forming. As she wisely noted, that’s the more effective, less expensive route. Let’s hope we start following it soon.
- Lisa Hansel