Words, words, words

In the Harvard Education Letter‘s edition on early childhood education, Catherine Snow, an eminent education professor, talks about the importance of teaching vocabulary.

By the time middle-class kids with well-educated parents are in the third grade, they probably know 12,000 words. But we don’t have a curriculum in kindergarten for teaching vocabulary, and we don’t have a curriculum in preschool for teaching vocabulary. It’s just something we assume kids are going to do on their own. Meanwhile, kids of undereducated parents who don’t talk to them very much probably have vocabularies of 4,000 words by the time they’re in third grade—a third as many words as their middle-class peers.

Children from educated, vocabulary-rich families are the most likely to attend preschools that provide more opportunity to develop language, Snow says. Disadvantaged children and those from non-English-speaking families are the ones who need help.

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  1. I’ve seen this. Most of my friends growing up spoke a language other than English at home. The difference in their vocabulary (compared to mine) seemed to be influenced most by how much they read English books and how many English speaking adults they had to talk to. You would think TV would help but it didn’t – perhaps because my friends didn’t learn spelling??? Those from more insular, isolated families who read books in their native language only had the toughest time keeping up.

  2. Pinker claims that the average 6-year-old (1st grader) knows about 13,000 words. While children from disadvantaged homes have less extensive vocabularies, I doubt their vocabularies are THAT low. I’m wondering if they’re measuring only SE vocabulary or if they are taking into account all non-SE vocabulary as well. The word “probably” tells me they didn’t measure at all. Even I, an old lady, pick up 30 or so words a year of slang from my students.

    Children do just pick up vocabulary, and they will do so at an astonishing rate. They are wired to pick up new words, but they are not wired as to which words they will pick up. If those who talk to a child use an extensive vocabulary, that’s the type of vocabulary the child will pick up, and vice versa. You don’t need a curriculum so much as staff that has and uses a complex vocabulary and avoids the small word trap. When a child is upset, sure, use words you are certain they understand, but at all other times use words you think they may NOT understand so you stretch them. Not understanding some words is the normal state for small children and does not upset them like it would an adult who attaches feelings of “being dumb” to it.

    My other thought is how this study squares up with the studies showing that Head Start is ineffective. I wonder if this idea might offer a clue as to why (what kind of language pool are the children being exposed to?).

    As for TV, have you ever noticed the vocabulary they use in children’s programming? It’s not very extensive. My guess is that, even putting aside the passive nature of TV watching — and plenty of immigrants say they pick up lots of English watching TV, so I’m not sure that’s the culprit here — they’re just not being exposed to new words through the programming.

    Lastly, there’s more to it for disadvantaged children. All other things being equal, they should acquire language at the rate of their middle-class peers, but often all other things are not equal. Pre-natal drug and alcohol exposure, lead exposure, poor nutrition, and the resulting learning disabilities are all factors. I’m seeing a fair number of crack babies at the high school level now (born in the 80’s), and they are often severely language impaired.

  3. sonofsheldon says:

    As a public school teacher in an “urban” school district, I’ve found that curriculum is extremely important in addressing this problem. When I was allowed to teach a phonetic language arts program, students were able to develop a much greater and richer vocabulary. Their spelling, reading, and spoken vocabularies grew so much, even their parents noticed.

  4. What does phonics-based vocabulary curricula look like in pre-K and K?

  5. Nancy D says:

    Does it matter how many Non Standard English words a student learns if learning will be measured in Standard English?

    Did I miss your point about non SE words learned, RCC?

  6. RCC — Time to get the lead out. There has been no valid scientific study that proves low levels of lead affects learning in children.

    Including that misleading statement detracts from the other very valid statements you made in that paragraph…

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    All right, you rich bastards! Stop talking to your kids. [They don’t listen, anyway]

  8. alan — believe it or not, around here lead poisoning is a huge problem. We’re not talking about low levels, but kids who are at several times the federal limits. So, I wasn’t thinking low levels when I wrote that. Sorry. Should have been clearer.

    Nancy, I’m not sure understand your question. Yeah, if they are measuring SE vocabulary, yes, those are the only words that count. The blog entry doesn’t say that, so I’m assuming words includes colloquial language as well as SE. A child only knowing 4,000 words total is far different from a child who knows 4,000 words as a subset of a larger vocabulary.

  9. RCC,I don’t know if I would begin formal phonetic training in pre-K, but to see what it would look like in K, go to http://www.riggsinst.org. You will find a massive amount of information there.

  10. Nancy D says:

    Here’s what I was asking about:

    “I’m wondering if they’re measuring only SE vocabulary or if they are taking into account all non-SE vocabulary as well. The word “probably” tells me they didn’t measure at all. Even I, an old lady, pick up 30 or so words a year of slang from my students.”

    I intended my question to get at the idea that for purposes of future academic achievement, the other non- SE words that a kid might know don’t really matter, so it doesn’t matter if they were measured in the 4,000 count or not.

    I wondered what you thought. It seems from your answer that you think that the size of the overall voculary will help achievement.

    I also don’t believe that the poor kids’ vocabularies are that much bigger than this post suggests, even including non-SE words. Some studies seem to indicate the poor kids usually don’t get spoken to as much, period, not that they don’t get spoken to as much in SE.

  11. The size of the overall vocabulary does increase achievement if you know how to work with it. In my experience, ignoring slang and dialect doesn’t work. Crossing out “finna” in their papers is pointless. Framing an SE grammar lesson around the grammatical rules that dictate the use of “finna” I’ve noticed fixes the problem. If the linguistic base is rich, the neurons are there to play with.

    I recognize Riggs. My elementary school used it. Pure, unadulterated torture. Screw ’em. I still don’t hold my pencil the way they say is correct, and they can shove it right up their hineys as far as I’m concerned. Yes, the ordeal was THAT painful and humiliating. Right up through middle school I was being labeled stupid because of that method. Thank goodness they don’t use it in our district!

  12. RCC, Yow, I wasn’t expecting that reaction! I guess I’ve had better experiences teaching it. When it comes to holding the pencil correctly, I have to admit, I’ve had to let that go sometimes, especially if I’m teaching students in upper grades who have already developed their grip. But I can usually get more enthusiasm from my students (except when it comes to homework) when we’re doing Riggs.

    Because of Riggs, I’ve been able to read Washington Irving with third graders, and Shakespeare with fourth and fifth grade classes. And most of the students enjoyed the reading.

    I’m not sure if this is the proper forum, but, for mostly selfish reasons, I really would like to know more about what you went through. I want to make sure I don’t do what your teachers did to fill you with such hatred.

  13. They insisted on the “correct grip,” which was and is impossible for me (I had to resort to it recently when I broke my third finger in a riding accident, and nobody could read my scrawl). Using my third finger, I write perfectly legibly and can even do a very nice Palmer hand — and I have a lovely collection of fountain pens that I use regularly. But my teachers insisted that I stay in from recess, do pull-out remediation, and generally ignored the fact that I could write fine my way to torture me. When the penmanship instructor came around twice a year to assess the class, I had to stay in from recess for a week to do an OK test, and even then the entire class would know that it was me that kept them from a gold star. (That REALLY makes you popular on the playground, let me tell you.) Now, I ask you, what difference does it make what finger I rest the pencil on? Has it been a factor in anything I do in life? None whatsoever. The problem with the system is its rigidity. My teachers were pretty much OK as far as I remember, but I’m sure they were figuring I had to be writing correctly when they sent me on to the next grade. I have a philosophical problem with any system that doesn’t take into account the individual student. I’m glad you get good results, and I’m sure it’s because you are not brainless in your application.

  14. Thanks for responding. You did have some very rigid teachers. The way I learned Riggs, we’re supposed to individualize lessons as much as we can. And, as you’ve demonstrated, there are times when students do things the right way in their own way.
    Take care.