2016-03-22

By Kathryn Robinson National Director of Practitioner Development

Many kindergarten students show up on their very first day of school already behind their peers due to limited exposure to rich language experiences from birth. The research term we use for this is a word gap. This includes a gap in the number and quality of words as well as in the number of encouraging versus discouraging words heard by young children from economically disadvantaged compared to advantaged homes. This gap develops among children much earlier than many realize: By the age of three, the gap can span a difference of more than 30 million words between children from differing socioeconomic strata.   

Why is this important?

It’s important because a well-developed vocabulary in children facilitates their process of learning to read. Children who enter school with smaller vocabularies than their peers from a higher socioeconomic status have the additional challenge of not only decoding words, but also discerning the meaning of those words, in order for them to make meaning from a text.  This requires children who are already behind in their language development to work even harder to develop their reading abilities. Focused efforts towards accelerating the vocabulary development for students such as this are critical because the demands of the text will only become more challenging and complex as the student advances in grades.

A focus area for City Year Americorps Members is to help students in need of vocabulary development.  Here are a few tips and resources that Americorps Members use to develop a child’s vocabulary:

  1. Provide rich oral language experiences for students through either reading aloud  or allowing the student time for independent reading to expand their word knowledge.  Spend time with students discussing unfamiliar vocabulary to help deepen the extent of their understanding of these words. A great book to jumpstart a conversation on the importance of words and building our vocabularies is The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant. Even though it’s a picture book, this biography of Peter Mark Roget is a perfect story for readers of all ages who love, or aspire to love, words.  

  2. Engage in direct and specific word instruction when reading texts with students. Go beyond just ensuring students have knowledge of the definition of a word, but ensure students have multiple opportunities to think about and actively engage with a word and its meaning, so that the word has a better chance of becoming an active part of their vocabulary. This approach for building vocabulary works with all types of text, but it works particularly well with graphic novels where the illustrations can provide a helpful scaffold for word learning, especially for struggling readers and English-language learners. Both the wildly popular graphic novel series Bone by Jeff Smith and Smile by Raina Telgemeier are great places to start.

  3. Show students how to “attack words.”  There are way more words in the world than we’ll ever be able to teach to students directly, so one way of helping them master all of these words is by teaching them the strategies to learn these words independently. Teaching students about word parts such as roots, prefixes and suffixes, and the meanings of the most common ones, will enable them to analyze unfamiliar words to help determine their meanings.

  4. Get students interested in playing with words and learning about language. Students who are curious about words are more likely to use them appropriately and also understand the subtleties in word meanings. Playing word games like Scrabble, Bananagrams, or crossword puzzles, and reading funny poetry from poets like Jack Prelutsky or Shel Silverstein are all great, fun ways of getting students to interact with words and language. Ways which hopefully pique their interest and curiosity to want to learn more.

The word gap that puts some students so far behind their peers before even starting school has to be closed. That’s why our City Year AmeriCorps members focus on these vocabulary strategies and hopefully these tips and resources provide you with a first step in helping to accelerate students’ vocabulary development in order to help close the critical gap.

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