Have You Heard of the Vocabulary Gap?

As a new parent, I’m constantly bombarded by things I should be doing, such as where my daughter should be developmentally and what we should be teaching her each week. Most importantly for me however, is raising a child that loves to learn and is a bookworm like me. I remember when I was a child my Grandma used to tell me I could go anywhere if I read a book.
Vocabulary is important from a young age. By age 2, children should have 70-225 words in their vocabulary (even if sometimes those words aren’t the ones you want them to know). Studies show that late talkers who only speak 50 words or less can make up for the vocab deficit but that this early vocabulary gap has profound effects on achievement as students get older.
In a recent Freakonomics podcast Dana Suskind, Thirty Million Words campaign creator, shared research around the profound effects that socioeconomic status can have on a child’s vocabulary. In fact by the age of 3, children born into poverty will hear 30 million fewer words than their peers. And 18-month-olds are processing language six months behind their peers in poorer households.
The human brain starts out as underdeveloped. It develops over time depending on what it encounters, so the quality of input is extremely important. That’s why the white paper, “Solving the Vocabulary Puzzle: Connecting Standards for Deeper Word Knowledge” by expert Brenda J. Overturf, ED. D., an author of Ready® Reading, is a much needed and important resource for educators and school leaders to ensure they’re reaching all students and preparing them for success across the curriculum.
By the end of high school a typical student has a vocabulary of about 40,000 word families. Those word families can vary greatly depending on the student, which makes it impossible to introduce every word a student will ever encounter in the texts they read or on assessments. So how can educators ensure students have this vocabulary base that we know is so important for setting them up for success in college and careers?

The Vocabulary Gap

Vocabulary knowledge involves more than knowing word definitions or that the car is red. It is also about knowing how to find the meanings of unknown words and phrases, interpret literal vs. nonliteral language and understand shades of word meaning. It also creates better reading comprehension and the ability to engage, produce and talk about texts.
As described above, the vocabulary gap starts at a young age. Students who know more words and can also use them in the right context have a significant advantage in school and can continue using that skill to their advantage in college and career. The CCSS include a vocabulary focus to help make sure students are comprehending, interpreting and analyzing written text, oral speech or media presentations, as well as checking on their ability to write and speak clearly.
Vocabulary is a vital building block to success in school and life. In order to communicate across the curriculum, a student must be able to build and retain word knowledge and develop strategies that help them access complex text. In order to support student success with robust and cohesive instruction that ultimately results in college and career readiness, educators must be able to connect the various standards that students need to master.
Students equipped with a higher vocabulary also have a greater ability to build networks and learn more words. It becomes a virtuous cycle; so while those students who are behind can make up for a vocabulary deficit over time, they’re also delayed in understanding the words they’ve already been introduced to, which inhibits their ability to learn new words. This in turn creates a greater need for those without a strong vocabulary base to develop the word knowledge necessary to level the academic playing field.
Therefore, the gap widens. In fact, studies show that vocabulary knowledge in the primary grades is considered a significant predictor of student achievement in middle and high school.

Putting the Pieces Together

Throughout the CCSS, vocabulary development is interwoven and often feels like a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces. This can be daunting, however when educators learn how to put the pieces together, it creates a coherent picture of student success. Ultimately we should provide students with the word knowledge and strategies needed to succeed as readers, writers, speakers, listeners and thinkers.
Within Solving the Vocabulary Puzzle, Dr. Overturf shares strategies for educators to help them complete the puzzle in their classrooms and connect vocabulary throughout language, reading writing, speaking and listening standards. School administrators and literature leaders will also glean tips to help them provide professional development opportunities for educators and how to establish a culture that celebrates vocabulary development.
Download the free whitepaper to learn how educators and school leaders can better integrate vocabulary instruction into the ELA classroom and support vocabulary development for all students.
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Jessica Slusser

Jessica is the Senior Director of Impact at Getting Smart. She leads business development and growth of advocacy campaigns, advisory services, product development, marketing, and Getting Smart's blog. As part of her role, Jessica also oversees team events, conferences, and speaking engagements.

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1 Comment

Casey L

Addressing vocabulary gap is incredibly important, not only because it is part of the overall inequality of educational experiences between different socioeconomic groups but also because vocabulary plays such a large role in the learning process. As stated in the article, low SES children hear 30 million less words by the age of three those of high SES groups, and therefore have smaller vocabularies upon entry to preschool. Without a solid vocabulary, children fail to achieve the same academic success; vocabulary knowledge in preschool is an effective predictor of academic success in middle school. In fact, many times, students deem a text too difficult when they do not know at least 98% of the vocabulary used (Anderson et al., 1988). This figure shows the necessity of vocabulary in the learning process; if a student is unable or unwilling to complete a text due to the difficulty they therefore will not learn from that text.
Other studies, such as Recht & Leslie (1988) and Ozuru et al., 2009, suggest that prior knowledge of a subject aids in reading a text more so than even general reading ability. One can infer that a potential pathway for this knowledge to aid in text comprehension is through familiarity with the vocabulary pertaining to a particular field. This post also discusses the inclusion of vocabulary practice in the core curriculum and that those who are behind can catch up; however, these children feel the profound effects of this gap throughout their academic careers. It is therefore necessary to create interventions aimed at closing this gap sooner so that these profound negative effects do not derail a student’s career.
It is particularly difficult to discover methods through which children with low vocabulary might catch up to others. In their 2014 study, Cohen-Mimran, Reznik-Nevet and Korona-Gaon investigate a vocabulary intervention aimed at increasing both vocabulary and syntax skills. The groups were divided into one low SES group, one middle SES group, and one control group to match the middle SES group. While the intervention showed a gain in both vocabulary and syntax skills for both test groups, but not the control group, the low SES group scored lower at both pre- and post- test scores. This study therefore demonstrates the need for and the difficulty in developing of programs aimed at closing the vocabulary gap. While students who begin school at a deficit can catch up, not all students will. As necessary as vocabulary education after entering school is, it is also important to keep in mind what causes the vocabulary gap in the first place. The inequality of experiences between those in high or middle SES groups and those in low SES groups plays a large part, and could be solved by poverty intervention programs or community resources.

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