Underneath the word gap

A child’s limited vocabulary reflects limited knowledge about the world, writes Esther Quintero on the Shanker Blog.

Children raised in welfare families learn far fewer words by the start of kindergarten than working-class or middle-class children, research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed.

Teaching vocabulary alone isn’t enough, writes Quintero. “We must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting ‘stuff’.”  In The Word Gap, Quintero looks at how to expand children’s vocabularies and general knowledge.

Here’s her animation on why words are the tip of the iceberg and what lies underneath.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “Ideas and conversation cost nothing.”

    That seems false. Not just run-of-the-mill false, but profoundly-ignorant-of-human-psychology-and-the-“laws”-of-economics kind of false.

    I’m not sure I appreciate the underlying message that poor parents aren’t doing these things because they’re lazy or they think it’s expensive. Engaging with anyone (even your own children) in an active, verbal, intellectual way is hard work. It is a skill that takes a lot of practice.

    You don’t get to blithely announce, “But it’s FREE!” and thereby convince a lot of people to move outside their comfort zones and habits to become, essentially, different types of people.

    Better to tell them that it’s a LOT of hard work, that can’t be let up, that has to happen RIGHT NOW. Better to tell them to face the fear of the uncertain and unfamiliar, to conquer that fear. Better to tell them the truth: creating the conditions for your child to intellectually grow — and maybe to surpass you — won’t be easy, but it’s really important if you want what’s best for them.

    (That’s assuming, of course, that everyone agrees that this is “what’s best” for the child in question. In some neighborhoods — let us be honest — this is just going to result in a childhood filled with getting beat up for being a nerdy little bookworm with a big vocabulary. The issue is more complex than people like to admit.)

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Even the ability to introduce kids to interesting stuff isn’t free. Parents know about interesting stuff because THEIR parents, teachers, and professors invested heavily in their educations. Yes, anyone with an internet connection can watch great documentaries at PBS.org, but…… how do you know what’s interesting if you don’t have a background.

      • You walk into the library and start looking at books and DVDs, that’s how.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          What if you’ve never been to a library? What if you find them scary and overwhelming? What if you don’t understand how they’re organized?

          Middle class people take libraries for granted– because someone invested the time, effort, and even money to teach us how to use them.

          The same kids who suffer from the language gap also suffer from a multigenerational culture gap.

          Heck, I regularly meet people, even middle class people, who don’t realize that the library is free!

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        You have to know something to tell something. Talked with a community educator some years ago when he was making house calls to sell GED or get your HS diploma in later years.
        Only reading matter he saw, says he, was National Enquirer. That was a long time ago, before cable tv was easily available. You still had to get up to change the channel, of which there may have been four.
        Now, there’s no reason to have the Enquirer, either.

        Example: Told my six-year-old granddaughter that when Great Grampa Aubrey and his friends–they called themselves Timberwolves [104th ID] (explained what a timberwolf was)–went over the ocean to fight the bad guys, the people where the bad guys had been were so grateful to Great Grampa and his friends that they named streets in three towns after the “timmerwolfs” [Timberwolfstraat].
        I was impressed when she related the story to her mother, and got it mostly right.
        That was an example which is going to be useful because I’m going to show her a map–us, the ocean, Holland, so forth–explained a timberwolf, mentioned there being bad guys who have to be fought by our guys from time to time, and provide both both continuity and pride in the family. And perhaps, sometime, an interest in traveling to Holland as Timberpup.

  2. Hi Joanne,

    Thanks for the animation! I featured it on my weekly news round up about education. You can see it here: http://www.livingequalslearning.com/learning-news-12-november-2013/



  3. There are many things that correlate with the success of children. Figuring out cause and effect is tricky.

  4. Florida resident says:

    An article (post) by Greg Cochran on the subject of gaps:
    With invariable respect of the noble work by Ms. Jacobs,
    your F.r.

  5. Ann in L.A. says:

    Those same studies that show the word gap also show that there is little language or conversation at all going on in some homes, and that much of it directed at children is negative (of the: don’t do that! variety.) Just telling people, who have themselves grown up in such households, to talk to their kids isn’t going to work very well; they lack the skills and the habits of the more talkative families.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Seen those studies. They don’t get much ink because they can be seen as racist.
      It remains to be seen whether any appreciable number of parents can be influenced by a one-time explanation with examples. We do what we do, whatever that is, for a reason. It takes energy to change what we do, because we’re going up against that reason.
      For example, I have an acquaintance who constantly interrupts conversations with corrections to others’ statements. The corrections are almost always factually in error and are uniformly irrelevant. I wondered aloud to some friends why the person expended the energy, which is not unlimited. The consensus was that it was so habitual that it took no energy, and consequently, an economic explanation was not valid.
      Other than a wet sandbag upside the head for the next ten or twenty thousand times, there is no likelihood of getting this changed.
      So I wonder if the parents in question are locked into their habits. Breaking a habit is tough, and it is accompanied, in this case, with an acknowledgment that one has been wrong, as has been one’s family, all these years. Going to be a tough sell.

      • When people are more concerned whether something might be seen as racist than if it is true (especially if it is true), then they have no claim to scientific or intellectual legitimacy.

        “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”