Why do some children get a head start on vocabulary?

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Why do some children get a head start on vocabulary?

Chapter One: Why read aloud?

What are the skills a child needs for kindergarten?

There is one skill that matters above all others, because it is the prime predictor of school success or failure: the child’s vocabulary upon entering school. Yes, the child goes to school to learn new words, but the words he or she already knows determine how much of what the teacher says will be understood. And since most instruction for the first four years of school is oral, the child who has the largest vocabulary will understand the most, while the child with the smallest vocabulary grasps the least.

Once they begin reading, personal vocabulary feeds (or frustrates) comprehension. And, since school grows increasingly complicated with each grade, that's why school-entry vocabulary tests predict so accurately.

How is It that some kids get a head start on vocabulary?

Conversation is the prime garden in which vocabulary grows, but conversations vary greatly from home to home. Consider the eye-opening findings of Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas from their research on children’s early lives. But before I share that, let me tell you how I share this with parents, because I'm often asked by educators how I manage to share this without insulting someone. Here's how I introduced it to 150 Title 1 (poverty) parents in Tennessee one morning:

"I'm going to tell you a secret now—a government secret. It's the equivalent of all that smoking and cancer research—except this tells us why certain kids' brains live long and why other children's brain's die young. The government has known this since 1996, yet no president has talked about it publicly, Democrat or Republican, no governor will talk about it. They're all afraid that if they shared this research, some of you might be insulted and then they'd lose votes. Instead, they told you a lie, that it was all the fault of schools and the awful teachers. That gets them some votes—but it's a lie. I'm not running for office, so I don't have to lie. I hope you're not insulted by what I'm going to tell you, but—honestly? I'm more interested in helping your child than saving your feelings. So here's the secret. Here's what helps your children the most and here's what hurts them the most."

And then I told them about the research you'll read next. They gave me a standing ovation, so I guess they felt more informed than insulted.

Published as Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,17 the research began in response to what Hart and Risley saw among the four-year-olds in the university lab school. With many children, the lines were already drawn. Some were far advanced and some far behind. When these same children were tested at age three and then again at nine, the differences held. What caused the differences so early?

The researchers began by identifying 42 normal families representing three socioeconomic groups: welfare, working class, and professional. Beginning when the children were seven months old, researchers visited the homes for one hour a month, and continued their visits for two and one-half years. During each visit, the researcher tape-recorded and transcribed by hand any conversations and actions taking place in front of the child.

Through 1,300 hours of visits, they accumulated 23 million bytes of information for the project database, categorizing every word (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) said in front of the child.

The project held some surprises: Regardless of socioeconomic level, all 42 families said and did the same things with their children. In other words, the basic instincts of good parenting are there for most people, rich or poor.

And then the researchers received the data printout and saw the “meaningful differences” among the 42 families.

hen the daily number of words for each group of children was projected across four years, the four-year-old child from the professional family will have heard 45 million words, the working-class child 26 million, and the welfare child only 13 million. All three children will show up for kindergarten on the same day, but one will have heard 32 million fewer words. If No Child Left Behind expects the teacher to get this child caught-up, she'll have to speak 10 words a second for 900 hours to reach the 32-million mark by year's end. I hope they have life support ready for her.

The word gap among those children has nothing to do with how much those parents love them. They all love their children and want the best for them, but some parents have a better idea of what needs to be said and done to reach that best. They know the child needs to hear words repeatedly in meaningful sentences and questions, and they know that plunking a two-year-old down in front of a television set for three hours at a time is more harmful than meaningful. Sociologists Farkas and Beron studied the research on 6,800 children from ages 3 to 12, and found that children from the lower SES were far more likely to arrive at school with smaller vocabularies (12-14 months behind) and they seldom made up the loss as they grew older.18 (See the summer-loss chart.)

The message in this kind of research is unambiguous: It’s not the toys in the house that make the difference in children’s lives; it’s the words in their heads. The least expensive thing we can give a child outside of a hug turns out to be the most valuable: words. You don’t need a job, a checking account, or even a high school diploma to talk with a child. If I could select any piece of research that all parents would be exposed to, Meaningful Differences would be the one. And that's feasible. The authors took their 268-page book and condensed it into a six-page article for American Educator (Spring, 2003), the journal of the American Federation of Teachers, which may be freely reproduced by schools.19

If schools are to enlist the help of the 7,800-hour curriculum, then we must stop telling parents lies about schools, and the truth about what helps and hurts children the most.

In the Spring of 2003, the Policy Information Center of Educational Testing Service (ETS) published a report called Reading and Literacy in America, describing the wide and growing literacy gap between American social classes, one they could trace all the way back to kindergarten. According to ETS' research, little of what occurs between kindergarten and 12th grade changes the chasm of achievement uncovered in the findings of Hart and Risley. To view charts of their findings, see Income-Literacy.

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The 1995 Hart & Risley Study

Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children describes the remarkable findings of Betty Hart, Ph.D., and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D. Their longitudinal study of parent-child talk in families in Kansas was conducted over a decade. A team of researchers recorded one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families over a three year period, with children from seven months to 36 months of age. The team then spent six additional years typing, coding, and analyzing 30,000 pages of transcripts.

Follow-up studies by Hart and Risley of those same children at age nine showed that there was a very tight link between the academic success of a child and the number of words the child’s parents spoke to the child to age three.

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