Start ‘Em Young: Tackling the Word Gap

In the 2003 article “The Early Catastrophe“, Betty Hart and Todd Risley observed parents of different socioeconomic statuses interacting with their children and came to a startling conclusion: they measured that children whose parents receive public benefits, which the authors refer to as being “on welfare,” have 30 million fewer words directed at them by age 3 than children from parents who are working professionals. The authors indicate that this has huge implications for educational inequality: even before formal schooling begins, children are at vastly different capabilities based on their experiences. For English instructors, this inequality poses a difficult question: how should English be taught in a way that both challenges the students who are ahead and allows the students who are behind to catch up? Furthermore, how should the school system act to reverse the inequality that originates at the home?

It is clear that reading aloud is one of the most important things that an educator can do to combat this inequality. Silent reading time won’t be much help to children who have never been read aloud to and who don’t know how to read. By reading aloud, the teacher can engage students of all levels.

The question of how teachers should balance their time is a tricky one. Is it fair to students who come from more reading-heavy households if a teacher spends more of their time working one-on-one with more needy students? I firmly believe that, if we’re serious about closing the word gap, teachers need to give intensive individualized instruction to the neediest students. While this does, in a sense, mean budgeting some of their time away from working with the more high-ability students, I think that this is necessary to bridge the gap. Children from working professional families will still receive plenty of engagement from their parents– they’re hardly suffering for attention according to the data. The earlier that teachers can start addressing inequality, the more thoroughly it can be reduced in the long run.

One other idea that merits strong consideration is universal preschool. Proposed as a policy goal by former President Obama but not yet enacted (and its enactment is unlikely under the Trump administration), universal preschool would give every parent and every child the option to attend preschool free at the point of use. In my opinion, this would go a very long way in bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Children who would otherwise be falling further behind in the number of words spoken to them would be able to interact with an adult for the entire day. If the word gap is 30 million words by age 3, it is surely much larger for children by age 5 if they do not enter preschool.

The word gap, really, is indicative of larger problems in education; the difficulty faced by the school system in dealing with issues of class-based inequality. While these issues will linger in the school system for many years to come, I think that aggressive, early action by teachers can help put less wealthy kids on the right track. This, along with universal preschool, would be a modest, but effective, step in helping all children to have the same opportunities.

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2 Responses to Start ‘Em Young: Tackling the Word Gap

  1. leighahall says:

    Here’s the depressing part…while we can do things that can make this better, we (schools/teachers) cannot solve this in and of themselves. Socio-economic status is, unfortunately, a predictor in terms of vocabulary development. Those years can’t be caught up on. What we need to do is address poverty.


  2. Pingback: Lessons From a Local Charter School | The Politics of Reading

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