The english language defines vocabulary as, “the body of words used in a particular language.” Our vocabulary is the foundation for reading and nearly every educational skill begins with reading. Sure, we learn to read when we go to first grade, and some learn in kindergarten. But is this enough? Should we wait to start teaching our children reading skills until they reach school age? The answer is NO. Vocabulary development begins well before a child can even speak. In fact, children need exposure to as many words as possible from the moment they are born.
A world-famous study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) found that “A child from a low-income family hears an average of eight million fewer words per year than a child from a wealthier family”. That’s more than 30 million fewer words by the time the child turns four. This phenomenon is known as the 30 million word gap.
“The children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school. These same kids, when followed into third grade, had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got higher test scores. The bottom line: the kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead; the kids who started out behind, stayed behind,” according to the Thirty Million Words® initiative.
Initiatives like Thirty Million Words® believe that those 30 million words are key to closing the achievement gap and giving children the best start in life. Other initiatives and communication efforts have spurred up around the country regarding this very topic. On June 25, 2014, the White House released a new video message from President Obama which emphasized the significance of supporting learning in our youngest children in an effort to bridge the word gap and improve the chances for success for our youth for the long term.
So what can parents and providers do to help shape the future for our children?
- Talk to the child whenever you do activities together. Even if they don’t understand what you’re saying or doing, your words and actions help them build mental connections and learn language.
- Read stories with children each night for twenty minutes. But don’t just read to them – ask questions and engage in conversation, utilizing vocabulary to teach him/ her to associate words with emotions, facial expressions and illustrations.
- Encourage every educator and caregiver in the child’s life to use vocabulary building strategies. Even simple things like talking with children about their day helps bridge the gap. Engage children in a conversation.