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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  1. My sixth grade teacher read us John Hershey’s Hiroshima over a the course of a semester. Quite an experience for a sixth grader back in the duck and cover era.

    She used a quiet period of listening to calm us all down after being out to recess or lunch.

  2. “The game is rigged” is not an accurate statement. No one is scheming to teach middle class kids more words and more background knowledge than poor kids. Middle class parents are just doing what they do. This generation of parents (unlike previous ones) understands that giving their kids a language-rich environment will help them achieve in school — and some of them WAY overdo it, in my opinion — but middle class parents have always done this. I have no doubt that intense preschool and parenting advice for poor parents will help, but the goal of having all kids end up at age 6 with identical vocabularies and sets of background knowledge is pie in the sky. We can’t make everyone above average. Better we should compress the income scale in this country so that a decent income is available to all who work full-time.

    • Middle class parents are just doing what they do.

      And we also know that pre-K intervention schemes, such as Head Start, show temporary results which dissipate over the next few years.

      • That is true for many interventions. Kids who are given support until they move up to grade level frequently start to slide back behind when the support ends – and schools very often use “performing at grade level” as a basis to end the additional support.

        A relative was working with the Detroit Schools a number of years ago, providing reading assistance for kids who were behind grade level. When her work with a student was reaching its end, she attempted to reach out to the child’s parents to give them tips on providing continuing support. The child’s mother didn’t seem to understand what my relative was urging her to do, although she kept promising that if her son was misbehaving she would set him straight. Finally my relative realized what the problem was – mom couldn’t read, and didn’t want to admit it. It’s hard enough to become a good reader when you grow up in a house without books. When nobody else in the house can read, what would you expect other than backsliding?

        I’m highly impressed by people who manage to excel despite an environment and extended family that is not particularly interested in academics or reading. Terry McMillan comes to mind. But you can’t point to an exceptional case and pretend that it is a model for other students – most kids need a lot more structure and support, and even with strong support will never pen a best seller.

  3. Bostonian says:

    quoting an interview of Bryan Caplan at Reason.com:

    Q. … On the one hand, genes clearly matter. On the other, young children of college graduates, for instance, know hundreds and hundreds more words on average than young children of high-school dropouts. That difference is not mostly genetic.

    You seem to have a different sense of the research. You write, “Adoption and twin research provides strong evidence that parents barely affect their children’s prospects.” What’s the brief version of how you try to persuade skeptics like me?

    Mr. Caplan: ……what does the twin and adoption data say? Language fits a standard pattern. Consistent with your skepticism, upbringing has a noticeable effect on the vocabulary of young children. But as children mature, this effect largely fades away. The Colorado Adoption Project found, for example, that 2-year-olds adopted by high-vocabulary parents had noticeably larger vocabularies. But as the kids grew up, their vocabulary scores looked more and more like their biological parents’. By age 12, the effect of enriched upbringing on vocabulary was barely visible.

  4. Florida resident says:

    Dear Bostonian !
    I completely agree with you. See also


    From there:
    “… A very good rule of thumb when reading child-development literature is that any study that has not taken careful account of heritable factors — by comparing identical twins raised together or separately, fraternal twins ditto ditto, non-twin siblings ditto ditto — is utterly and completely worthless. That sentence is (a) true, and (b) guaranteed to get you thrown out of a high window if spoken aloud at any gathering of education theorists.

    Certainly Mr. Tough will have none of it. The child is a blank slate. Parents act on it, causing this and this. Then teachers act on it, causing that and that. Bingo! — you have a finished adult. Or, as Mr. Tough summarizes the interesting (but perfectly gene-free) work of sociologist Annette Lareau: “[G]ive a child X, and you get Y.” So simple! One wonders if there has ever been an education theorist who has actually raised children, or retained any memory of his own childhood. …”

    Your truly, F.r.

    • Twin studies are great, but there are only so many twins who have been studied, and even fewer who have been raised apart.

      To pretend that you cannot study child development, or other similar issues, if you don’t devote significant attention to twin studies is… simply incorrect. If you draw a conclusion that is at significant odds with what you find through a comprehensive study of twins raised apart, then you have cause to take a second look. But how often do you or Derbyshire believe that happens?

      • Florida resident says:

        Dear Aron !

        The emphasis of Derbyshire’s book and articles is that a lot of conclusions of the studies, which conclusions do not take into account genes, are useless.

        Do the study without twins, but try other explanations.

        Compare to
        “Income inequality and IQ” by Charles Murray:

        Short, but very important study.
        If Nobel committee would ask me, I would nominate Murray for the
        “Prize in physiology or medicine”
        for that study only.
        Alas, they did not ask.

        Your truly, F.r.

  5. Reading out loud to (and with) students is a good thing and I remember some of my teachers doing exactly that as well. Library lessons were also important because they exposed children to the love of books and gave them access to literature. In essence, however, the ‘game is always rigged’ in life. That’s not say that some don’t break the mould, because we have clearly seen examples of those who do; but we simply don’t start off life at the same starting point. Perhaps, one thing, however, that might alter the odds of the game (or turn it more in favor of poorer children) is starting school earlier?

  6. Seems like reading aloud to a class of 15 or 20 kids is a different animal from reading aloud to one or two. In the latter case you can stop and explain new words, or repeat things which aren’t understood, while continuing past passages which are clearly understood. You can customize your pacing to the needs of the individual. This isn’t really practical in a classroom. Inevitably you go too fast for some and too slow for others, and you aren’t ever going to get the same benefit.

    • I think you can do this quite successfully while reading to a group of 15 or 20 or 25. A teacher who knows his/her class can handle this very well.

  7. Bostonian and Florida,

    Bryan Caplan’s offhand mention of one aspect of the Colorado twins study…isn’t exactly the final word on genetic v. environmental impact on vocabulary.

    A much bigger twin study analysis, see Richard Olson 2011.

    His sample includes the Colorado twins data (he is at UC Boulder) but also those from Australia and Scandinavia, more than 2,000 twins.

    His finds are more nuanced than “Genetics drives vocabulary, environment does not.” Highly technical but worth a read.

    Also a caveat – the low environmental effects may be “due in part to a limited environmental range across teachers, classrooms, and schools in the twin samples that have been studied.

    Therefore, high genetic influence does not necessarily deny the potential for the success of intensive interventions focused directly on word recognition accuracy and fluency, be they schoolwide or on reading disabilities.”

    • Florida resident says:

      Dear MG !
      May I kindly ask you to provide rhe web-references to the studies you are talking about ?
      Your F.r.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    One thing that is missing from this discussion is peer pressure. Except for the very highly educated areas, using “big words” is not “cool”. This includes blue-collar white areas. My DD’s high school English treacher apologized to her class for using “big words”. This is a private HS. I almost hit the ceiling and burst a blood vessel when I heard this – but heaven forbid we push the little brats to actually stretch themselves – it may damage their self esteem!