Coordinated help at home and school could help children in poverty to fill 30 million vocabulary gap

Research shows that poor children's vocabulary gap is evident at 18 months and widens to make learning more difficult and create lifelong disadvantages.

We must rethink language support for children in poverty to fill vocabulary gaps that are already evident at 18 months. These gaps hinder reading, reduce learning and can lead to lifelong disadvantages.

Though we need more research into what works, the evidence suggests that sustained training for teachers to deliver instruction around new words in early years environments could help to reduce the “word gap” that harms children in poverty. Our efforts could be even more effective if teachers, who often have good relationships with the parents of young children, could help Mom and Dad carry on the work at home.

“Vocabulary instruction accounts on average for just 5 minutes of the classroom day. Teachers provide about half of the talk in the classroom but mainly to direct and manage children. These trends occur in classrooms serving middle income children but are more pronounced in lower income settings.”

US research by Anne Fernald and Virginia Marchman shows that, by 18 months of age, children from middle-income families know 60 per cent more words than do children from poor backgrounds, and they also understand words more quickly. This gap grows significantly by kindergarten. Partly because of this difference, many children fall behind when their teachers begin offering reading instruction in kindergarten and first grade. By fourth grade, half of children in poverty can’t read with even basic proficiency, jeopardizing their opportunities to learn. This puts them at high risk of chronic academic underperformance and damages their adult job prospects.

30 million vocabulary gap established in early years

Understanding of the pathway from childhood word poverty to adult disadvantage began with findings of a ground-breaking US study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. They showed that, in high-poverty households, children were exposed to an average of 30 million fewer words in their early years than were their middle-income peers. The word gap between children from different socioeconomic groups has been identified since the 1960s in the United States and elsewhere, in both developed and developing economies. It is a pernicious, persistent and widespread phenomenon that demands better understanding of both causes and remedies.

Language stimulation is a key factor

Many interrelated factors—such as environmental stress, health, nutrition and even neurological development—help explain the word gap between socioeconomic groups. However, one factor that is both observable and, in principle, changeable is that children in poverty typically receive far less language stimulation. Researchers have identified this shortfall not only in the homes but also in the childcare and school environments of these children during their first years of life. Policy-makers, practitioners and parents could eventually improve language support in these diverse locations.

Children who have grown up in poverty come to school knowing words around them, such as “peanut butter” and “bread,” but might not know words like “sandwich.” They may have heard fewer words beyond common parlance: for example, they might be familiar with “look” but not “gaze” or “observe.” And, they are less likely to have heard rare words that refer to very specific ideas, such as “metamorphosis” to describe how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Texts are rich with these kinds of complex, rare words. So when these children get to age 9 and reading becomes more about gaining information, it’s much harder for them to extract the meaning of what they are reading. As a result, they find it hard to learn about science because they are struggling to get through the chapter on animal development.

Schools don’t generally fill the word gap. Vocabulary instruction accounts for just 5 minutes of the average classroom day, according to US research published in 2009. Teachers provide about half of the talk in the classroom but mainly to direct and manage children. Even when teachers read books, they vary a great deal in how much they explain new words. These trends are most pronounced in classrooms serving lower-income children, according to US research by Andrew Mashburn and colleagues.

A multifaceted approach to learning vocabulary including teachers and parents

All this evidence demonstrates how many factors contribute to the language stimulation gap for children in poverty and highlights that solutions may require a multifaceted approach. However, few projects targeted at either families or educators have been shown to increase children’s vocabulary. This failure partly reflects the nature of project design and evaluation, which has not typically focused on accumulating or teaching words. Even programs with proven success in raising vocabulary have produced only modest improvements compared with the size of the word gap that children in poverty experience.

All the successful programs have targeted just one or two school years, running the risk that gains will fade out eventually. More generally, projects are typically handicapped because as many as 50 per cent of children’s caregivers drop out over the course an academic year. Even among teachers, whose participation can be required by employers, implementation of word-focused programs can be patchy. Also, the ways that adults and children interact in conversation are typically so established that it’s hard to change them significantly in the short term. All of these facts suggest that programs need to be very appealing, practical and feasible if they are to keep families and educators involved over the time required to achieve real change in children’s word learning.

Many programs, including the promising ones, place little emphasis on coordinating efforts to increase vocabulary across both home and care or school contexts. Such coordination may be necessary, given that children often benefit from multiple exposures to words. Also, teachers’ and parents’ contributions complement one another: teachers bring expertise and work with same-age peers, while parents and caregivers can provide extended time for one-to-one interaction. The route to success, it seems, will be to design programs that harness the attributes of all these adults to help children fill the “word gap” early on, when it’s relatively small—before it gets larger as they grow older and becomes an unbridgeable gulf.

Policy Implications

Governments should fund strategic initiatives to learn more about exactly how children learn words in their homes, schools, and communities; as well as disseminate information in useable ways to the families and educators who interact with the youngest and most disadvantaged children.

Practical Implications

Practitioners should focus on increasing opportunities for back-and-forth conversations with children, as well as among children.

Annemarie H Hindman

Annemarie H. Hindman

Associate Professor, Psychological Studies in Education at Temple University, Philadelphia, USA

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Barbara A Wasik

Barbara A. Wasik

PNC Chair in Early Childhood Education, College of Education, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA

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Emily K Snell

Emily K. Snell

Research Scientist, Temple University College of Education, Philadelphia, USA

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Original research and references

  1. Hindman AH, Wasik BA, Snell EK Closing the Word Gap: Next Steps in Designing Research to Inform Practice Child Development - published when?