Vocabulary is destiny

In New York City, ambitious students are prepping for the test that decides admission to selective high schools. The game is rigged, writes Ginia Bellafante in For Poor Schoolchildren, a Poverty of Words in the New York Times.

Not too long ago, I witnessed a child, about two months shy of 3, welcome the return of some furniture to his family’s apartment with the enthusiastic declaration “Ottoman is back!”  The child understood that the stout cylindrical object from which he liked to jump had a name and that its absence had been caused by a visit to someone called “an upholsterer.” The upholsterer, he realized, was responsible for converting the ottoman from one color or texture to another.

. . . Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate.

The children of less-educated parents don’t learn the words or the world knowledge. They start school behind — and they rarely catch up.

As the education theorist E. D. Hirsch recently wrote in a review of Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.

We need high-quality preschools, not better test-prep programs in middle school, Bellafante writes.

If vocabulary is destiny, memorizing word lists doesn’t help, writes Robert Pondiscio at Core Knowledge Blog. We learn words “by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context.”  General knowledge provides the context.

What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool. Not even “high quality” preschool. What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

Teachers should read aloud in class, adds Doug Lemov (Teach Like a Champion) in an e-mail discussion.

(Reading aloud) allows students to hear far more sophisticated words than they could decode and process on their own and at a faster rate than they could process on their own.  It’s a highly efficient delivery mechanism for sophisticated vocabulary development (with expression to aid with context and as an aside it also introduces complex syntax and language structures in advance of students being able to decode them successfully.)

But “reading aloud is a dying art these days,” Lemov writes.

 

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