Poor Kids Start School 32 Million Words Behind

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.

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Photo credit: edenpictures


Robert Vincelette

Many people are offended by anything but the simplest words and they bedizen their discourses with such syntactical brimborians as "ya know," "Aaah mean," I'm like," and "See ya". But these brimborions from the mouth should be discouraged by disciplining children from using them in the same way we discourcge children from using "cuss" words: references to subagation, including the - if I make take recourse to an indelicate paronomasia - "mother of all cuss words, the vernacular reference to Oedipus Rex; disagreeable emunctory offices; and religion. Children need to be taught en masse to scorn those who mussitate, "Aaah mean, hnnmmwhy cant tcha tawlk plain laaahk everbody else, ya know."

Jacqueline S.
Jacqueline S5 years ago

I guess speaking and reading to my children from birth on was the loving and parental thing to do. From the time I can remember, my parents did this and when I started kindergarten, I was given a great example of learning when instructed "to never guess, we look it up" referring to a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia.

Fiona T.
Past Member 5 years ago

Without proper means of communication, how can they enter a higher level of social herachy?

Liliana G.
Liliana G5 years ago

Bilingualism or multilanguage is not the issue here even though it is a very interesting subject. The issue here is how vocabulary expansion is measured and how it influences intelligence. People in the highlands, I used to know some, tend to be uncultivated but still possess a large vocabulary even though not as correct or stylish as many city people, at least it was so two generations ago. Not all people are brain wired for two or more languages. (Einstein was probably a good example.)

Winn Adams
Winn Adams5 years ago

not fair!

Stephen B.
Stephen B5 years ago

Two words: Head Start.
This program has been shown to be an effective tool in lower-income areas, and pays for itself many time over after even a few years through reduced costs is remedial education. In the long-term, the ROI is incredible. Children who attended Head Start were more likely to finish High School (and continue education), finding higher-paying employment and increasing the tax base. Their piers who didn't attend were more likely to drop out of school, and many spent significant time in correctional facilities.

@Vickie P,: In most cases, they can't catch up. The brain is growing during infancy and early childhood, and there are significant "mental highways" that are developed during this period. If these are NOT developed early, while the brain is growing, it will be, at best, difficult (if not impossible) to develop them later. Babies are able to distinguish between differences in sounds from all human languages until 6 to 9 month old. The sounds they have heard will be remembered. Sounds they haven't are extremely difficult to learn later. (e.g. Most Asian languages do not distinguish between the "L" and "R" sounds, common in European languishes, so it is difficult for them to distinguish them when they learn those languages (even in grade school).

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Ian Fletcher
Ian Fletcher5 years ago

Words are obviously the key, but as a translator, I must defend the stimulus given by many languages to be even more important than having many words absorbed by todders in just one language.
Multi-lingualism, by the way, is also a stimulating way to retard the effects of Alzheimer and other disorders.
It's also induces world peace by getting people to feel at home in other cultures fast. Reducing ignorance and making friends you would otherwise never even meet.

holly masih
.5 years ago

preschool has its good points,but the biggest thing should be to work with the parents to promote interaction and communication between the parents and the children,which is important not only for educational benefits,but emotional ones as well.

Heidi R.
Past Member 5 years ago

Pre-schooling is so important to the development of our children and should be cheaper and subsidized.