Very young children gain much of their language skills from home. Parents are charged with socialising their children, so it is no wonder that a child’s early vocabulary knowledge is inextricably tied to the size of their parents’ vocabularies. In the most disadvantaged families, children may have up to 30 million less words addressed to them by age 4 compared to children from affluent families. It is not just the quantity of words but the quality of the words spoken too. Words addressed to kids in affluent families are wide-ranging and far more friendly. This gap in language exposure has dire consequences, so dire that Hart and Risley termed it ‘the early catastrophe’. Over time, the effects show. A high performing first grader knows twice as many words as a poor performing one. By the end of school – year 12 – the high performer knows four times as many words as the low performing one. This Matthew Effect continues throughout a lifetime. A small advantage early in life can grow into a big one later on in life.
Language knowledge has important implications for educators because of the effect it has on academic achievement. A barrier exists between the language of everyday life and academic, literate culture. Corson (1985) named this barrier the lexical bar. He asserts that academic success is only possible if students can cross the lexical bar. This makes sense; the language complexity in texts, especially academic texts, far exceeds that of everyday speech. If one cannot get to grips with the language needed to comprehend texts above the lexical bar, then academic success cannot be achieved. It seems that the gap between those who achieve academic success and those who do not is fundamentally a knowledge gap – of words and the topics that give those words context. Academic achievement has serious implications for later life outcomes. Educators have a duty to do what they can to intervene so more kids are able to leap the lexical bar.
Economic Policy Institute (2010). Taken from Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam.
Teach the code
The very first thing schools should do to help address the knowledge gap is teach kids the alphabetic code. The Simple View of Reading asserts that once students learn to decode, they can begin to apply their current language skills to accumulate new vocabulary and world knowledge at a rapid rate. The quicker the better; the more fluent decoding becomes, the less working memory is devoted to it so more time can be spent grappling with the content and vocabulary of the text rather than decoding the words on the page. There is no greater way to expand language than the ability to read. It is, therefore, a real shame that in Australia many stand in the way of ensuring all children learn the code well. Nothing could be more important.
Systematic vocabulary instruction
Some words appear frequently in written text but not in spoken text. Knowing these Tier 2 words may have a profound effect on reading comprehension. Merchant, benevolent and fortunate are examples of Tier 2 words. They are uncommon in spoken language but have high utility in written texts. Teachers would do well to teach these words explicitly, systematically and cumulatively over a long period of time (years) to ensure words are learnt to a deep level whereby students can recognise and comprehend these words in different contexts. The effect could be huge. Consider a kindergarten student who is explicitly taught 10 words a week every week for 7 years of primary school. That student would accumulate knowledge of some 2800 words of high utility in written text. That knowledge could make all the difference.
Put reading at the core of it all
Reading is out of fashion in classrooms. We say its important but is what we say backed up by what we do? Technology is the in-thing, reading is out. Sometimes it is just easier to throw on a video rather than do a whole-class reading or a read aloud. I’m very much guilty of this. The neglect of informational texts is widespread in primary school. This problem has been further inflated in recent years by the engagement movement. Reading informational texts just isn’t engaging enough, or so our actions and attitudes as teachers make it seem. You only have to evaluate the general contempt for textbooks in schools to know this is the current mood. Yet informational texts are useful for promoting language development and knowledge building. We need to put reading for information at the core of what we do in classrooms.
If teaching the code is the most fiercely contested topic in Australian Ed, the role of knowledge – how much, how little – is probably a close second. The Australian Curriculum is knowledge poor. The history curriculum does not contain any real historical content until Year 4, knowledge only counts for 1/3 of the science curriculum and the English curriculum is just a bunch of generic skill descriptors. Knowledge is not popular, yet it is essential for language development. It is completely possible to decode and understand every word in a passage of text yet have very little understanding of what the text is talking about. Comprehension is affected by knowledge of the domain.
” “Gigantic and luminous, the earliest star formed like a pearl inside shells of swirling gas.” (National Geographic, Feb 2003)
Most adults, drawing on their knowledge of the Big Bang theory, pearl formation (and the use of metaphor, which I return to below), and gasses, can comprehend this sentence. But we would expect different degrees of comprehension among, say, physicists, amateur astronomers.” (Hirsch, 2003)
Like knowledge of words, children from well-off backgrounds have a huge advantage here. They visit museums, go to plays, travel to historical locations and participate in a neverending variety of enriching activities. The disadvantaged are not so lucky. The only way they are ever going to gain world knowledge to a level high enough to help leap the lexical bar is if they are taught it at school. Currently, they are not.
Corson, D. (1985). The lexical bar. Pergamon. — This concept is mentioned in Bringing Words to Life, where I first encountered it.