Do you ever think about how many different words your children hear on a daily basis? How about how many different words you were exposed to in early childhood — even before ages three or four? Can something so simple really influence the minds of young children in a significant way? Absolutely.
In charter schools that serve poor communities in Brooklyn, Steven F. Wilson, who founded the schools, says that the number one challenge for incoming kindergarten students each year is “word deficit” (NYT). The parents of poor children not only use less complex language than more affluent parents, they also use far fewer words. In fact, the deficit is so large that it is estimated there may be gaps of 32 million words between children at different socioeconomic levels by age four.
The benefit of words
How can simply listening to different words prepare children for school and life in the workforce? Communicating with young children using complex or challenging words stretches their minds. They not only become familiar with more complex language, but are more comfortable with intellectual challenges and unfamiliar concepts, skills that will serve them well later in life.
Wilson’s experience in the classroom has shown that by the time kids hit kindergarten, they may already be falling behind. Early childhood education, especially pre-school, may be more important than anyone thought, especially for language development and reading comprehension. And these kids are coming in behind their peers through no fault of their own. They aren’t lazy, disobedient, or less intelligent. They just haven’t been exposed to enough words.
What can you do?
What can you do to nurture your childrens’ or grandchildrens’ vocabulary and comprehension, and help them to avoid word poverty?
Talk to them: The single best thing you can do for a child is to talk to him or her, starting in infanthood. Use full sentences and complex words, not baby-talk. Express information coherently and use rational explanations for things that are happening in the child’s environment. Turning on the TV or popping in a vocabulary video doesn’t count: kids will only learn when they have facial and tonal context to help them understand unfamiliar words.
Read to them: There’s no better way to discover new words than to read a book. Would you use words like “guffaw,” “repugnant,” or “malignant” in everyday conversation? Maybe not, but they are important words to know. You may be surprised how many three-syllable words you can find in a children’s book.
Set high expectations: Encourage kids to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary, or to find synonyms for commonly used words. Make it clear that words are something to be celebrated and explored and lead by example.
What is the best way to avoid word poverty? Should pre-school become mandatory so that kids coming into kindergarten aren’t lagging so far behind? Unlike abolishing financial poverty, lessening the burden of word poverty seems like a fairly simple concept. Share your ideas about giving young children a leg up in the comments below.
Photo credit: edenpictures