From ‘cat’ to ‘platypus’

Students who start kindergarten with small vocabularies don’t learn many words in school,  according to new studies. Students from low-income families were the least likely to be taught challenging words.

Few kindergarten teachers provide formal, structured lessons on vocabulary, researchers found. Some teachers discussed only two words a day and others as many as 20.  Most words were chosen from stories teachers read aloud, which means ”

they had little connection to other words being taught at the same time.”

“Essentially, what we found was a very haphazard approach to vocabulary instruction,” (University of Michigan Professor Susan) Neuman said.”The ‘challenging’ vocabulary choices were not based on frequency, not based on the supporting academic words children need to know like ‘during’ and ‘after,’ not content-rich words, like ‘predict.’ Why would you choose to emphasize the word ‘platypus’? It makes no sense.”

Reading materials developed in the early 1990s focused on phonics, so kids read about fat cats who sat on mats. Now the stress is on teaching more hard words, says Timothy Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“If the next story has a platypus in it, that’s a hard word; we might as well teach it. … We’ve managed to get publishers off ‘cat,’ but they’ve swung over to ‘platypus.’ “

About Joanne


  1. I am certainly in favor of a structured approach to teaching vocab, to ensure that kids learn as many tier I and tier II words as possible, along with a content-rich curriculum. However, since we do not currently have enough “high-quality” teachers to staff every k-12 school, adding mandatory preschool would only dilute the teacher pool further. IIRC, that happened when CA mandated smaller classes; the level of teacher quality went down. Also, it has also been documented that some communities, particularly those where adults do not have wide vocabs and children start school furthest behind, are resistant to speech that is seen as too different from the community norm. These issues, among others, should be considered before leaping to more mandatory schooling.

  2. Barry Garelick says:

    I thought “manatee” was the word du jour.

  3. Remember the “pineapples don’t have sleeves question?” Natural history is very important for later standardized testing success. 😉

    Do these researchers know any 5 year olds? The kindergartners I’ve known would have been much more interested in platypi than the words “during” and “after.”

    Any studies on the efficacy of teacher-led oral definitions of words in stories read to the pre-literate? If a kid has to hear the same word 28 times to learn it (supposedly), will the canned basic readers become even more basic (i.e., boring)?

    I don’t suppose it matters much to the eventual outcome. Can’t you just feel the “coordinated basal readers with Tier II vocabulary words and pre-planned lesson plans” speeding their way into kindergarten classrooms, without any proof that it will improve students’ vocabularies?

    So long Tikki Tikki Tembo no sa rembo chari bari ruchi pip peri pembo.

    • palisadesk says:

      “Any studies on the efficacy of teacher-led oral definitions of words in stories read to the pre-literate?”

      Yes. I don’t have time to look them up for you right now, but Biemiller and Stahl are some of the relevant researchers.

      And the data on how much vocabulary children learn in elementary school is far from “new.” It goes back more than 30 years.

      • I found this opinion piece by Andrew Biemiller on the AFT site: “Conclusion: A substantially greater teacher-centered effort is needed to promote vocabulary development, especially in the kindergarten and early primary years. ”

        I would not argue with the conclusion. I have grave doubts about real world implementation, especially in the setting of a possible national curriculum. I also would like to see some proof of concept, i.e., an effort to increase a smaller group of students’ vocabularies through targeted kindergarten/preschool vocabulary instruction. In the same opinion piece, Biemiller states, “I was further influenced by the finding of my doctoral student, Maria Cantalini (1987), that school instruction in kindergarten and grade 1 apparently had no impact on vocabulary development as assessed by the Peabody vocabulary test. Morrison, Williams, and Massetti (1998) have since replicated this finding.”

        I am wary of arguments which basically run, “(proposed reform) should work, even if it doesn’t work at present.” I would not want to see vast changes instituted in early childhood education on the basis of theories alone.

        If all children learn vocabulary sequentially, what do the children who know 1,000 + words do while those who enter with 600 words learn word that are new to them? Will new, national curricula include segments which will be useless for many districts, because it’s written at too low a level?

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    My wife and I are tutoring Nepali HS students. It’s tough to learn a word if you don’t know what the words used in a defintion mean.

    • It seems like actual experiences (like the preschool outlined in the New Jersey piece above) might be more effective than straight vocab instruction at the kindergarten level.

      For instance: The farmer picks the pumpkins off the vine, puts them on the trailer, and drives his tractor to the farm stand.

      Well, we could define all those words. And even draw pictures. But the main reason my three year old can understand that sentence is because he’s been to a pumpkin patch. So for him, it’s not new words, it’s reminders of what he’s seen.

      A kid who grew up watching soap operas with grandma and never made it off his block is going to find that sentence more confusing.

      I think we underestimate how huge the EXPERIENCE gap is between middle class kids and inner city kids. The vocab gap is only a symptom of larger issues.

      For instance, my kids all arrived at kindergarten age knowing about platypuses –we go to zoo and read lots of books and watch nature shows. If you really want to work on the vocab gap, maybe we can arrange field trips for single moms and their kids in the inner cities… Of course, if those field trips were optional, only some of the kids would get to go….

      • Absolutely. It’s not just the vocab gap; it’s also the gap in the background knowledge the words represent and the value (or lack thereof) placed by the family/community placed upon such knowledge. My kids were raised in the DC area, where even families living in the inner city have access to dozens of free museums, government buildings, historical sites, gardens, parks, concerts, libraries and other places of educational value. Those not within walking distance are easily accessed with bikes or the Metro. For far too many of those families, such sites might as well be on Mars for all the interest they have in visiting, even if specifically encouraged to do so. From first-hand accounts, even motivated teenagers are not likely to visit, even though they could go on their own. However, one does see lots of Asians, even the poor immigrant ones, at local libraries, museums etc – young kids with parents and older kids on their own. Culture is a hard nut to crack.

        • When we went to the Cincinnati zoo, every family there was white or Asian. It’s in the middle of a ghetto and gives discounts to the poor…. We need to change the culture, and it needs to start with teaching young moms that part of being a parent is taking your kids places outside of school.

          • The unpleasant and politically incorrect fact is that illegitimacy is THE huge risk factor for all kinds of problems, particularly if the “parents” are young, poorly educated, and economically/socially unable to raise kids decently. Those unprepared for the responsibilities of parenthood shouldn’t have kids. Period. You can’t adopt a cat from a shelter without demonstrating commitment to proper care. We’ve been throwing money and all kinds of resources at the problem for decades, it hasn’t worked, we have whole communities where the knowledge and will to raise kids well has been lost, and we’re running out of taxpayer money.

          • lightly seasoned says:

            My local zoo is free, is located in the city, and seems to attract black families in my observation. They could be suburban black families, I guess, but that isn’t the same argument.

          • lightly (from below)…
            shhhhhh, that can’y possibly be true. I mean, momof4 knows all the suburban an urban black families in your city too. [Isn’t it funny how momof4’s stories seem to include almost every city and/or state?]

      • Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

        Screw the experience gap.

        You can grow up in a small urban apartment and still get yourself a monster-size vocabulary. The world was conquered for everyone the day they invented the codex.

        I grew up knowing about thousands and thousands of things I’d never seen — things that I only encountered thanks to JRR Tolkein, Donald J. Sobol, Franklin W. Dixon, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Robert Heinlein, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Homer, Frank Herbert, WEB Griffin, and the Comic Strip Bible.

        They’re called books. And they’re the great equalizer.

        But unfortunately, the kids who are stuck in mind-numbing environments don’t just get deprived of experiences, they get deprived of the best surrogates, too.

        And that’s enough to make me want to cry. Or steal babies. One or the other.

        • “There is no frigate like a book, To take us lands away” – that’s how I learned, too. For those among us who grew up without local museums etc, books were the miracle cure. Of course, we were all freee-range kids who thought nothing of biking 10 miles to pick berries and go for a swim.

          jab: I’ll grant you the likelihood that some of the families we encountered were not suburban, but upper-middle-class urban – probably from NW. However, if my kids recognized them from sports, they WERE playing on suburban teams, because DC didn’t have any travel teams. So, yeah, we did recognize familiar kids and families – quelle shock! And they dressed, behaved and spoke the language of the upper middle class,so we did assume they were part of it – however unlikely to seem to think that was.

          • Actually, since it was the DC area, many of the families were probably military and had adopted the upper-middle-class values, habits, behaviors and speech, even if they didn’t have the income, yet. You know, upward mobility and that whole package; the military has been doing that for decades.

  5. That was what I noticed in the DC area. It was not unusual to see black and Hispanic kids/families, but they were the kids that went to suburban schools, played on suburban travel soccer teams etc. In fact, it was rare for us NOT to encounter kids that my kids knew or recognized from school or extracurriculars. After a few seasons on the elite sports circuit, kids get to know those they compete against – and I’ve been told it’s the same for performing arts. From the dress, manners and (two) parents, few of the visitors were disadvantaged. I noticed the same thing last year, when we visited the Botanical Garden around Christmas.

    • Yup–it’s the middle class mentality… some have it, some don’t. But if we can’t pass it on to kids born without it, they’re not going to ever get the vocabularies, grit, etc. etc, needed to succeed and have a middle class life. (Maybe the issue is they don’t WANT what we tell them to want? Are we doomed to a permanent underclass? And if we work and pay taxes to pay for their benefits to keep them from attacking us, are they REALLY the underclass? Or are they the ruling class?)

      • lightly seasoned says:

        Yes, we will always have an underclass. We pay for basic benefits because 1. We’re human and 2. We’d rather not have outbreaks of disease.

        • lightly,
          It’s not worth trying to disabuse them of their white resentment… you see, they are the real victims, being oppressed by a black underclass that mooches off their tax money… tax money that they feel is being extorted from them under threat of violence (as Ms. Mundy says, we must “work and pay taxes to pay for their benefits to keep them from attacking us.”)

          • Well, JAB, we can’t force them to want ‘middle class values’…we give a chance to the kids who want to move on, but…. what to do about those who DON’T want to move on, and who are content to live in the same cycle of poverty?

            The “maybe they are the ruling class” thing is mostly a mind game. But….do members of the underclass think they’re the underclass? or do they think they have it pretty good? And if they think they have it pretty good, and don’t see an advantage to being a ‘middle class striver’ as opposed to very rich…..

            This is the point I’m trying (and failing, I think) to make… the vocab/experience/whatever gab endures because, at some point, it’s a result of the choices of the parents… or the children, since immigrants also develop rich vocabularies…… and we can’t force them to choose to want to be like us…

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Many people believe a version of what could be called the children of light and the children of darkness. The children of light are read to and talked to. Parents (usually 2) constantly point out things and ask questions, engaging the child in learning about the world. They teach the kids middle class values: work hard, do well in school, plan for the future, defer gratification. Children of light grow up to be prosperous adults. The children of darkness have parents (usually 1) who don’t do those things. By the time these children reach first grade, their course in life is set. They will do poorly in school and poorly in life. The only way to avoid this is to take the kids away from their inadequate parents when they are very young and somehow treat them like children of light.

            This theory is usually associated with the right. However, I heard clear echos of it in the David Kirp article on Union City, NJ, discussed in the post “How bad schools got better.”

            ” One December morning the lesson is making latkes, the potato pancakes that are a Hanukkah staple. Everything that transpires during these 90 minutes could be called a “teachable moment” — describing the smell of an onion (“Strong or light? Strong — duro. Will it smell differently when we cook it? We’ll have to find out.”); pronouncing the “p” in pepper and pimento; getting the hang of a food processor (“When I put all the ingredients in, what will happen?”).

            “Cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling; here, this line vanishes. The good teacher is always on the lookout for both kinds of lessons, always aiming to reach both head and heart. “My goal is to do for these kids what I do with my own children,” the teacher, Susana Rojas, tells me. “It’s all about exposure to concepts — wide, narrow, long, short. I bring in breads from different countries. ‘Let’s do a pie chart showing which one you liked the best.’ I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 — I could teach a monkey to count.”

            “… Building character and getting students to think is her [Alina Bossbaly’s] mission. … Though Ms. Bossbaly is a star, her philosophy pervades the district. Wherever I went, these schools felt less like impersonal institutions than the simulacrum of an extended family.”

            And then there was that guy a few days ago who said every kid should have to go to school for 2 years prior to 1st grade.

    • Oh and you know they were all suburban… how is that? Oh right, you can just tell by sight, right?

  6. Low expectations are a huge problem. The sidebar on the article describes how teachers (supposedly) should prioritize words to define:

    “Some experts recommend that educators ask themselves a series of questions on how to prioritize vocabulary words in a story they are teaching their students. For example, the class will read a story next week including the words “platypus,” “principle,” and “baby.” ”

    “Principle” is deemed important for later academic success. “Baby” is common enough that it needs no in-class definition. “Platypus” is perhaps essential to understand a specific text, but time should not be spent defining it.

    EXCEPT for the inconvenient fact that 5 year olds will be more interested in a strange-looking egg-laying mammal than the word “principle.” By discussing the platypus, a teacher could introduce the concepts of mammals, reproduction, and even the word, “exception,” as of course, platypi are exceptional mammals.

    The idea that teachers should teach essential vocabulary carries a seed of a lack of respect for teachers, and a lack of respect for children’s innate capacity to learn. Vocabulary is important, but in my opinion, young children will learn more if they are curious.

    It would be possible to expand children’s vocabulary by using Mother Goose and classic poems for children. Do one a day, define a word or two, answer any questions the children have, and go from there. In other words, emulate the bedtime story practices of middle-class parents.

    Does this have any hope of implementation? NO. Classic songs and poems are out of copyright, i.e. free, and freely available on the internet (no profit, you see.) Also, no doubt they won’t conform to the expectations of modern textbook guidelines (see Diane Ravitch’s book _The Language Police_).

    I live in dread of the Modern, Expert-Approved, Fully-Planned, Scientific Kindergarten Curriculum. No play, no joy, no curiosity. Profit, though, and the satisfaction of standardizing curriculum, even if it doesn’t have any effect on vocabulary.

  7. Roger– so, in a modern society where all choices are valid and moral, who are we to say that one method is better than the other? All our measures of ‘success’ presuppose that everyone should strive for the middle classes. But what if our measures are biased? What if the hipsters on foodstamps ( are right, and both lifestyles are valid? Maybe it’s unfair to force other people’s children to adhere to our values….. Maybe this is just a modern iteration of the “indian schools…”

  8. North of 49th says:

    “I would not argue with the conclusion. I have grave doubts about real world implementation, especially in the setting of a possible national curriculum”

    We don’t have a national curriculum, mercifully. But my district has implemented, in a number of low-SES schools, an oral language development program in pre-K-3, with strong evidence of success, especially in vocabulary and reading outcomes. The website is here: but I don’t see the actual data on the site, I *have* seen it in hard copy, however, and the pre-post (and interim) measures are quite impressive. Scores on the Peabody vocabulary test, the “gold standard,” rise subsrtantially and keep rising, and children’s narrative skills, listening and reasoning also show strong gains, measured by both performance based and norm referenced assessments. (They use something like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, but adapted for Canadian content and normed samples).

    My school has had it in place for some time and although we are practically 100% visible minority, low SES and ELL, our students regularly exceed the provincial standard and equal or surpass achievement by many affluent suburban students. This was by no means always the case, so it is likely that this program does in fact contribute a great deal to the students’ success. I know I’m seeing young children with vocabularies that regularly surprise me compared to what used to be the norm. Children are using words like “evanescent” and “incredulous” in their conversation. They also memorize a lot of quality poetry — just the other day I heard kids practising reciting “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” (by Robert Frost) first chorally, and then individually.

    That never used to happen.

  9. North of 49th, the program looks very interesting, from its website description. It looks like a program which gives teachers great latitude in encouraging oral language development in young children.

    Are the books, songs and stories used in the program chosen from a list? Are teachers given guidance on what sort of books to choose from existing works, or is it all part of the program? For example, could a teacher read an existing children’s classic, if it fit the guidelines?

    The teacher in the short video describes works chosen for the students which she would not have thought were suited for students until “junior high.” I like the idea of not limiting materials to what one thinks the students can handle now. The “just right” materials formula seems to lead (in my opinion) to a gradual ratcheting down of material complexity.

    I also like the Core Knowledge curriculum’s description of their preschool/kindergarten expectations. Again, vocabulary is important, but the Core Knowledge curriculum does not seem to try to boil it down to a scientifically-approved vocabulary list.

  10. North of 49th says:

    cranberry, there is a list of books and poems, but it is quite extensive and includes many classics as well as lesser-known but well-written stories (like folk tales) from other parts of the world. I know teachers have a protocol to follow on how to introduce the stories, what activities to do, how to foster discussion, recall, retelling, and so on, but as far as I kniow there is no “vocabulary list.” There’s a lot of sophisticated vocabulary in the books and stories and these are read and re-read; children retell and illustrate the stories, and children learn many words in context from these stories.

    In addition to the 3 to 3 books and poems teachers are encouraged to select chellenging material for their regular read-aloud, literacy and social studies instructional time. Teachers get onsite coaching in using the strategies and materials; there are also lots of videos available.

    • You can’t make people read, no matter how hard you try. And people who don’t read, and read a lot, will never develop a huge vocabulary. Who do they really have to blame for that other than their parents and themselves? Especially with billions in publicy funded K-12 schools (and their libraries) and public libraries at their disposal.

      • With libraries (which also have internet access, DVDs, and all sorts of events… some even have maker spaces) scattered across the US, and with bookmobiles that go out to the hinterlands, anyone who wants to get an education can. We could probably scrap the entire ed system, double library budgets, and save a ton of money while educating the same number of people to the same level of proficiency. But then, what would all the administrators do with themselves? Work at McD’s for a 9$ minimum wage? I think not!@

  11. palisadesk says:

    I was quite amazed by this observation of Joanne’s:

    “Reading materials developed in the early 1990s focused on phonics, so kids read about fat cats who sat on mats.”

    Where was this going on? Fountas and Pinnell were coming on strong in the early 90’s, the Developmental Reading Assessment was taking hold, “Balanced Literacy” becoming the order of the day.

    I have some materials with fat cats on mats -= they are *all* developed in the 60’s and 70’s — Sullivan readers, the Basic Reading Series, Lippincott, Charles Merrill — I could go on. The only decodable supplementary readers widely used (some from Scholastic, others from Ginn and Educators Publishing Service) were of the same vintage.

    This flowering of fat cats on mats and concomitant development of extensive phonics-based instruction occurred exactly where?