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Bridging the Achievement Gap: The Importance of Words

Purposeful steps a parents can take to boost their child’s exposure to words

The best thing that any parent can do to make sure that his or her child is not on the wrong side of the academic achievement gap is to power up their own vocabulary. According to a 2001 study by George Farkas, a sociologist at Penn State University, children who grow up poor or close to being poor, were adversely affected by their parent’s vocabulary deficit.

This problem is particularly relevant to the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Statistics released by the Department of Education in 2007 show that communitywide, 35 percent of Bed-Stuy’s residents live in poverty. Thirty-eight percent of residents over the age of 25 do not hold a high school diploma, compared to 28 percent citywide. Additionally, only 40 percent are performing at or above grade level for language arts, which tests reading, writing, speaking and listening.

According to Farkas, the vocabulary deficit is evident in poor children – both black and white – at the earliest ages. But the gap becomes dramatic by the age of 36 months. The gap decreases once the child enters school. But research shows that the child never fully recovers from the deprivation experienced during preschool years unless there are purposeful steps taken by the parent to boost their child’s exposure to words.

The Urban Child Institute (UCI), a non-profit research organization based in Memphis Tennessee, has identified strategies that can be used to strengthen and increase word consciousness and help narrow the achievement gap:

1.     Provide purposeful exposure to new vocabulary – Obviously, the more words that children are exposed in a variety of contexts, the more opportunities that they have to retain these words and expand their vocabularies. If the parent has a deficiency in their own vocabulary, they can compensate by reading books aloud and using illustrations in books to provide clues to the meaning of new words.  Exposure to new words can also be provided through a variety of multimedia such as CD’s, DVD’s, or web based content for children. 

2.     Intentionally teach word meanings – Intentionally using new vocabulary words when talking to children and directly asking questions about the word and its meaning is another effective approach and a step up from simply exposing the child to the word.  You can also engage in this strategy when reading aloud by providing definitions to unfamiliar words in the context of the story.

3.     Teach word- learning strategies – Children have to be taught how to infer the meanings of words from their context.  One proven way to accomplish this is to use “think aloud” techniques, where the reader shares their thinking aloud as they try to make predictions about the meaning of a new word.  This provides a model for the child to follow to infer meaning when they encounter unfamiliar words on their own. 

4.     Give children opportunities to use newly learned words – Without opportunities to use newly acquired vocabulary, it quickly becomes forgotten.  Push children to use the new vocabulary whenever possible in your everyday conversations.  You can also ask children to read or retell stories from the books that you have read together. 

Early exposure to words – many words – is proven to increase a child’s likelihood of academic success. But not just any old group of words will do the trick: Parents should be concerned not only with the volume of words used, but also the quality of those words.  While one may appreciate the verbal word play and dexterity displayed by the likes of Lil’ Wayne and Nicki Minaj, playing their music in the background in the presence of your toddler probably is not the quickest route to raising their SAT scores. 

In addition to monitoring the music and media children are exposed to, adults may want to make sure that they limit the off-color content of their own communication, since every moment that we spend speaking in the presence of our children is actually a lesson in vocabulary and communication. 

It is universally acknowledged that a well developed vocabulary is the most powerful weapon available to our children in the fight for academic equity.  Consistent and purposeful exposure to a diverse array of words will ultimately be the bridge that will allow our children to cross the chasm known as the achievement gap. 

*This is a re-print of an article that ran on Bed-Stuy Patch February 6, 2011**

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