A Smarter Beginning 

School Readiness and Poor Vocabulary

December 19, 2013 / by Susan Sirigatti

Some children hear 30 million words less than other children in their first 3 years. This leads to a poor vocabulary which has negative effects on school readiness, literacy and future school success. These children often never catch up.

listen-to-your-kids_lWhether you choose homeschooling or regular school for your child, you want him or her to be ready to learn. This means having certain necessary skills and attitudes. Unfortunately, many kids today enter kindergarten without being ready. Their prekindergarten experiences have not provided them with the necessary preparation. The worst of it is that they are likely to have problems which increase as they go through school.

Don’t Minimize Vocabulary

Although there are a number of aspects of school readiness, the one I’d like to focus on here comes under the heading of language and literacy, and that’s vocabulary. Why vocabulary? Because it’s so critical for literacy. One well-known study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. Brookes Publishing, 1995), examined the language experiences of young children in the home. They wanted to see where a child’s vocabulary growth came from (www.art.org/pdfs/amercianeducator/spring2003/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf).

They studied 42 different families one hour each month for 2 ½ years from when the children were 7 to 9 months old until they turned 3 years. The children ranged in sex, order of birth, number of brothers and sisters, structure of their families and family socioeconomic status. All were from well-functioning families. What they found was that some children had heard 30 million more words than other children during their first 3 years. (Obviously, the researchers were not talking about 30 million different words but rather the amount of speech the children were exposed to.) To break this down, while some children heard 2,153 words per hour, others heard only 616 words per hour.  Moreover, the gap continued to grow.

Why Was There Such a Profound Gap?

The children’s vocabulary depended on how much their parents talked to them during those early years. Also important was the type of encouragement, positive or negative, the parents gave them. Eighty-six percent to ninety-eight percent of the words used by each child by the age of 3 they had heard from their parents. The significance of this became clear when the researchers also found that there was a very close relationship between the children’s academic success at 9 years old and the number of words used and the amount of talk that went on between the parents and the child in the early years. Most important, the study showed that “…differences in parent-child interaction produced significant discrepancies in not only children’s knowledge, but also their skills and experiences….”

Talking With Your Child is Critical

Whatever else we can say about school readiness and what a child needs to be prepared for learning, the importance of vocabulary cannot be minimized. What this means is that talking with your child as much as possible from the earliest age is critical. As the researchers concluded, “The most important aspect of children’s language experience is quantity.”  And “talking with” means conversing, listening when your child talks, drawing him or her out, giving positive feedback, reading from picture books, encouraging your child to comment, and gesturing. All these things count. Think about them also in choosing a substitute caregiver when you can’t be with your child. Make sure that that person, whether a grandparent, nanny, or au-pair, talks with your child.  It’s also one of the criteria you should use in choosing a preschool.  Does the teacher make time to talk to the children one-on-one each day?

What do (or did) you do to prepare your preschooler for learning? Please share your experiences with us.

Photo credit: Bindaas Madhavi/Foter.com/CC BY-NC-ND

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