Preschool is too late: how school’s can address the word gap

4 Apr

Depending on if you come from a “the glass is half full” or “the glass is half empty” stance, the news that 3 year-old children from low-income families have acquired about 30 million fewer words that children from wealthier families could be enlightening or grim.  Does this mean we finally have a chance to address what might be one of the earliest and most significant causes of the achievement gap, or that schools and society are fighting an uphill battle they can’t seem to win?

I think the answer to that question is “yes”.

It’s still crazy to think that a 6 hour school day will alleviate all of the problems that poverty, racism, and general inequality create, but school’s can help.  But not by adding in long lists of required vocabulary that kids learn by rote memorization each day.  One of the biggest concerns about the new interest in vocabulary is that it will create some sort of required “canon” of words that each child will be expected to know.  But words are best learned in context, rather than in isolation with stark definitions.  A child who can connect a word to a story, an experience, other words or examples, is far more likely to use and own that word than one who can simply recite a definition.

Think about adults.  Many of the higher level or “academic” words that we read and/or write everyday fall into the nebulous category of “I know it when I hear it but I can’t define it.”  Despite the fact that we can’t give a technical definition of the word, we have full use of it because we’ve been exposed to it in a variety of contexts.  Contrast that with many technical words children learn in school, like denominator, erosion, or denouement.   Students often learn these words as parts of units of study in science, math, or English, complete with definitions.  But when it comes time for the test and you put these words in a question (or even worse, a form of the word in a question, like “erode” or “eroding”) and they fall to pieces–they don’t know what it means or how to use it.  This is probably why I have completely forgotten all of the words on my weekly 9th grade vocabulary tests except for quotidian.   I thought it was crazy that such a complicated words meant “everyday language,” and I therefore used it wherever I could out of a  teenage sense of irony.

Vocabulary acquisition is an important part of what it means to be literate, and conversely the more literate you are the more vocabulary you learn.  Reading in general, and read-alouds by adults (all the way through middle school and even high school) are some of the most effective ways to increase vocabulary.  Interactive read-alouds–those where the adult is thinking aloud and discussing the book with children–are even more effective.  Just as Hart and Risley found that talk had to be directed at a child, and not just surround them, to help improve their vocabulary, reading that involves conversation with children is more effective that just reading aloud.

I hope the new studies push for more real literature in school–more time to read aloud, read alone, and build rich experiences around reading for children.  The more a child can connect the words they hear to experiences and a wider net of knowledge, the more they will own that word.  There’s certainly a place for direct vocabulary instruction in schools (I talk about it here, here, and here) books are our greatest and most lifelong teachers.

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