I know of no parents who don’t strive to raise healthy, independent, and successful offspring. Numerous offerings compete for advising parents how to prepare and jettison their children into adulthood. What to focus on and how to do it are the questions parents face in their efforts. Economic worries abound, bullying is still an issue and growing, and competition for college slots is severe, yet putting these factors not under our control aside for a moment, we can hone in on several steps parents can consciously take to build a strong and secure foundation which their children can use as a springboard to life-long learning, critical thinking, and social savvy.
Two areas deserve attention. One is the size of the vocabulary used in the home and elsewhere in the interactions of the child. Vocabulary has been shown to be the gateway to greater learning. Another is the number of languages spoken in the home or elsewhere in the child’s daily environment. These factors can impact students entering school and affect them throughout their K-12 education. They can have vital results for learners. This column will address the vocabulary issue.
The most predictive indicator of reading comprehension and academic success is the level of vocabulary development. Students who enter school with a paucity of words in their vocabulary experience what is referred to as the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer). Not only do they not catch up on learning the words their peers know, but they keep falling further behind, unless a concerted effort is made to help them. Researchers have reported a strong connection between oral receptive vocabulary at first grade and reading comprehension at 11th grade.
ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) recently issued their findings that document the strong connection between vocabulary instruction and future academic achievement. An average child’s vocabulary increases from an estimated 3,500 root word meanings at the beginning of kindergarten, to 6,000 root words at the end of the second grade, to approximately 20,000 root words by fifth grade. Therefore, from Grades 1 to 5, students need to learn about 3,500 words per year. This is overwhelming for students who start too far behind. In addition, low-income students who are frustrated with their lack of progress may engage in aggressive behaviors, read less, have fewer books at home, do not frequent libraries, and spend much time watching television.
According to a study by Hart and Risley in 1997, economically disadvantaged children are exposed to about a third as many words as advantaged children and receive little if any explanation of word meanings. From the ages of seven to 12 months, children interacted with their mothers in the following ways:
Number of Words Spoken to Children per hour
Working class mothers
Professional mothers are more likely to ask their children questions and tend to respond and expand their children’s comments. As a result, an enormous gap becomes evident in children by the age of three.
Number of Words Spoken to Children over 3 years
Working class mothers
These differing contributions result in varied vocabulary levels, IQ scores, and school readiness, and affect academic achievement.
So what can parents do to help prepare their children for academic success and grow their vocabulary? If they themselves cannot interact with high word usage, they could find activities which would provide their children with these opportunities. Libraries offer many toddlers programs. They can also ask their child’s teacher to send home lists of newly acquired words to use with accompanying examples. Words can be included in parent newsletters or on the teacher's website. Parents could ask their children questions similar to those raised by the teacher. The parents can also let the teacher know which common words their child doesn’t understand. If possible and available, parents can attend school workshops to learn how to read aloud to their children as they watch effective ways being modeled.
For parents who enjoy playing games with their children of all ages, vocabulary is reinforced by playing Scrabble, Boggle, Joggle, and doing word searches; however, games like Hangman, Dictionary, Bookworm, Text Twist, and What Word offer more active vocabulary building skills.
Two additional resources for parents are the Academic Word List by Coxhead (2000) which presents 570 lead words and 3,000 altogether. The list can be accessed free online. For those with an iPhone, practice is available from the Flashcards Deluxe application. The second resource is vocabulary.com, an online skills builder.
The prudent focus is no longer the early reading skill, but vocabulary as the best predictor of later reading comprehension and academic success. Those who learn this lesson early reap huge benefits later on.