Are some kids really smarter just because they know more words?


download (1)

Molly McManus, University of Texas at Austin

Why do rich kids end up doing better than poor kids in school? Of late, one common explanation for this has been the “word gap,” or the idea that poor children are exposed to significantly fewer words by age three than their wealthier peers.

As a former elementary school teacher and now educational psychologist, I understand the appeal of the “word gap” argument. But, focusing on the “word gap” as an explanation for the achievement gap between poor students and wealthier students is both distracting and potentially harmful. Such an explanation could allow educators at all levels to both deny and widen this real gap that exists between the rich and the poor kids.

What is the ‘word gap’?

A study conducted over 30 years ago first came up with findings that showed there was a “word gap” between children from low-income homes and children from economically advantaged ones.

For this study, researchers entered the homes of 42 families over a span of four years to assess daily language exchanges between parents and their young children. The researchers found that, by age three, children with high-income families were exposed to 30 million more words than children with families on welfare.

The study was subsequently critiqued for its flawed research methodology as well as biased assumptions about families of color and families coping with financial crisis.

However, in the last three years the idea of a “word gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged kids has gained extraordinary public exposure.

References to the word gap can now be seen almost weekly in widely circulated publications. Headlines like “Poor Kids and the ‘Word Gap’,” “How do you make a baby smart?,” “Mind the Word Gap,” “The famous ‘word gap’ doesn’t hurt only the young. It affects many educators, too.” and “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” are now quite common.

The attention being paid to ‘word gap’ is harmful.
Jeff Moore, CC BY-NC-ND

From a place of relative obscurity, the study has now become the “evidence-based” foundation for countless initiatives and programs working to improve the academic achievement of poor children.

I agree that the idea is tempting to embrace, especially when it has received support from high-profile organizations like the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail, The University of Chicago, School of Medicine’s Thirty Million Words® Initiative and even The White House. But the attention being paid to “word gap” is harmful.

Why is the ‘word gap’ harmful?

Students living in poverty currently comprise more than one-half of the public school population. Meanwhile, the test score gap between the most disadvantaged children (those in the bottom 10% of the income distribution) and children from wealthy families (those in the top 10%) has expanded by 30% to 40% over the last three decades.

Unfortunately, the focus on the “word gap” takes teachers and other educators away from thinking about how to address the larger issue of inequality in education. Instead, it focuses attention on what children do not have in terms of an arbitrary word count.

Following the “word gap” logic, teachers often view vocabulary building as the most important aspect of education. However, in reality, there is a wide scope of early learning experiences that all young children, particularly those experiencing poverty, need to develop.

For example, approaches such as project-based learning provide students the opportunity to engage with complex topics and construct their own knowledge in addition to developing vocabulary.

Moreover, when we use the “word gap” to identify poor children as behind before they even begin school, that affects their teachers’ view of what they are capable of doing. It directs attention toward the things that poor families do not have and cannot offer their young children.

Poorer students can be made to feeling less capable because of what they do not know.
River Arts, CC BY-ND

Research shows that teachers of poor students and/or students of color often dwell on the experiences and language that their students are missing and default to teaching practices such as vocabulary drills and rote repetition that emphasize obedience and quiet behavior.

Not only do these types of learning experiences limit students’ opportunities to develop language, they also negatively affect students’ views of themselves as learners. Poor students are made to feel less capable because of what they do not know.

Because of the “word gap” and other widespread assumptions grounded in deficit thinking – the idea that low-income minority students fail in school because they and their families have deficiencies – many teachers are not tapping into the strengths and rich experiences that their students bring to school. Consequently, they deny students the types of learning experiences that allow them to explore, talk and collaborate.

Finally, the “word gap” sends a message to poor parents and parents of color that there is something wrong with their parenting if it is different from the practices of affluent, white parents.

It unfairly takes the onus off of schools and teachers to provide sophisticated learning opportunities in which their students can excel and places the blame for failure squarely on parents’ shoulders.

As a result, poor parents and parents of color are viewed as less capable because of what they do not know, just like their children.

The learning experience gap

Low-income children are more likely than their higher-income peers to be in factory-like classrooms that allow little interaction and physical movement. As a result, these children spend more time sitting, following directions and listening rather than discussing, debating, solving problems and sharing ideas.

Focusing on the “word gap” further perpetuates these problematic learning opportunities and deprives children of the types of learning experiences required to develop a range of sophisticated capabilities.

I believe that most parents, regardless of circumstance, would also agree that it is important to engage in conversation with their young children. However, early conversations and exposure to words will not determine whether a child does well in school. Furthermore, poverty is not an indication that parents are not speaking to their young children.

The academic disparity between young children in poverty and children from wealthier families is not a result of what their parents can offer. It is a result of the different types of learning experiences they are afforded at school.

In other words, it is not the “word gap” but the opportunity gap that is the problem.

The Conversation

Molly McManus, PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Too much too soon? What should we be teaching four-year-olds


Maybe not so smiley on the second day of school

Maybe not so smiley on the second day of school

Courtenay Norbury, Royal Holloway and Debbie Gooch, Royal Holloway

The first day of school is a momentous event in the life of a child. For many it is a day filled with pride and excitement. For others it is more stressful; they may cling to their parents, unused to being parted for so long.

In England, these extremes of experience are particularly marked because of the very young age at which children start formal schooling. Children begin school in the year in which they turn five, meaning that many children start school shortly after their fourth birthdays. England is unusual in this regard; in 31 out of 37 European countries children do not start formal education until they are at least six.

The age at which children start school may not matter as much as what happens to them once they get to the classroom. Given our backgrounds in developmental psychology and speech-language therapy, we think the current targets set for children in their first year at school are not developmentally appropriate. Our research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry demonstrates that the youngest children in the class find these targets particularly challenging.

England has a curriculum for Early Years Foundation Stage, which outlines developmental goals from birth to five years old. This includes three prime areas of learning such as personal, social and emotional development; physical development; communication and language; as well as specific areas of learning such as maths and literacy.

In 2012, the New Early Years Foundation Stage Profile was introduced, to document attainment at the end of the early years curriculum. The profile is completed by the teacher at the end of the first year in school, and children are assessed on the extent to which they meet or exceed expected progress on 12 key targets across these areas of learning. Those making expected progress are deemed to have achieved a “good level of development”. Here are a few of the key targets:

  1. Understanding: children follow instructions involving several ideas or actions. They answer “how” and “why” questions about their experiences and in response to stories or events.
  2. Health and self-care: children know the importance for good health of physical exercise, and a healthy diet, and talk about ways to keep healthy and safe.
  3. Writing: They write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others. Some words are spelt correctly and others are phonetically plausible.
  4. Numbers: children count reliably with numbers from one to 20, place them in order and say which number is one more or one less than a given number. They solve problems, including doubling, halving and sharing.

Up to 20 by five years old.
Child counting via PhotoUG/www.shutterstock.com

Government statistics confirm a 22% attainment gap between the oldest and the youngest children in the reception year. It is therefore not surprising that there have been calls to adjust the assessments at the end of the reception year for age, so that at least on paper, younger children are not disadvantaged.

Half of all children don’t meet the targets

But our study highlights a much bigger issue. We sampled more than 7,000 children in mainstream reception classrooms in Surrey, a relatively affluent county in south-east England. Across this population, only 57% of children achieved a “good level of development”, comparable to national estimates of 52%. If half the children in the country can’t meet the targets, we argue that perhaps the targets are wrong.

Yet age is not the only, or even the most important, factor in predicting academic success in the reception year. In our study, there were other things that contributed to poorer academic progress: being a boy, living in more impoverished neighbourhoods, speaking more than one language, and displaying more behavioural difficulties.

However, oral language – such as vocabulary, grammar and story-telling skills – was the most important predictor of progress on curriculum targets. This is because the curriculum requires children to listen, comprehend, explain themselves and use words to solve problems. In our study, twice as many younger children were reported to have poor language skills at school entry, relative to their oldest peers. And fewer than 5% children with low language proficiency achieved a good level of development on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile.

Years of research has also told us that language is the foundation for literacy. Children arriving at school with lower levels of oral language proficiency, for whatever reason, are therefore at a distinct disadvantage for learning.

Don’t set children up for failure

We suggest that focusing the first reception year on developing children’s oral language abilities may help to attenuate the attainment gaps experienced by younger children. It is also possible that a focus on oral language will narrow the gap for children from impoverished communities and those who are learning English as an additional language. We predict that ensuring a good foundation in oral language will also improve reading and writing in later school years, even for the oldest children in the class.

Literacy targets, particularly writing, have been introduced at ever younger ages in an effort to improve standards, but we fear this may do more harm than good. Asking children to engage in tasks that are developmentally out of their reach increases frustration and experience of failure. Many of the children that we have followed up over time tell us at the tender age of six, that they “aren’t good at reading” or they “can’t do writing.” This is a tragedy.

We need to develop children’s oral language skills early and leave formal classroom instruction until children have the foundation skills they need to achieve. This should raise the attainments, and esteem, of all children.

The Conversation

Courtenay Norbury, Professor, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway and Debbie Gooch, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Royal Holloway

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.