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May 17, 2009

Botanists, Backhoes, and Brilliant Connections

In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley published Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, a book that closely examines how experiences within children's first few years of life can impact their life trajectories for years to come.  Using data collected from families at a variety of income levels, they learned: 


"...the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour)...In a 5,200-hour year, the amount would be 11.2 million words for a child in a professional family, 6.5 million words for a child in a working-class family, and 3.2 million words for a child in a welfare family. In four years of such experience, an average child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family would have accumulated experience with 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family would have accumulated experience with 13 million words."

Excerpted from The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 (Hart & Risley). 

Over thirty million words! Children in professional families have experience with over thirty million more words than their peers in low income families.  Just stop for a minute and think about the implications of those different qualities of experiences!  


As a pre-k teacher in a low income community, I know that I cannot close the word gap alone.  John wrote a post in November that alluded to this same conclusion, and I completely agree with him.  That being said, however, I have found some relatively simple ways to help my students build their vocabularies at school.  Starting from the first day of school, our classroom is flooded with rich vocabulary words.  We have a "botanist" who waters the plants, an "equipment manager" who takes our balls and chalk outside, and a "meteorologist" who checks the temperature.  We build "gigantic" towers with blocks, do "phenomenal" work with patterns, and make "brilliant connections" to books.  My students are inundated with new words throughout the day, and because they are presented in a meaningful context, my students quickly learn the meanings of these words and are able to use them in conversation.  Just last week Mayala complemented Makiera on the "beautiful, gigantic house" that she built with blocks.   


In addition to these natural contexts, I also make a point to teach new vocabulary words associated with our thematic units.  Last month our theme was "Measure Up!" which focused on building, measuring, and construction. My students learned about backhoes, graders, screwdrivers, pulleys, blueprints, and more.  I taught the words initially through books -- we read Dig by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemsha when we learned about backhoes -- and then reinforced the newly learned words throughout our classroom.  In this example, we had toy backhoes in our blocks center and sand table, pictures of backhoes in our blocks center, and several nonfiction books about backhoes in the library.  I took a picture of a construction site near my house and we found the backhoe in the picture, and we practiced acting like backhoes (pushing with one arm and scooping with the other) during morning meeting.  By the end of the unit, all of my students could identify backhoes and describe their function.  While I unfortunately can't go into quite this much detail for every vocabulary word, I always make it a point to bring up new words in their natural contexts and help my students understand the meanings of those words.   


The socio-economic realities of the word gap are impossible to overcome alone. But every time I hear Makiera explaining how a "bud blossoms into a flower," and Aaliyah calling her friends to use their "magnifying glasses to look at insects" I know that I've made an irreversible dent in the right direction. Hight quality pre-k will not solve the word gap, but providing children with access to a language rich pre-k experience will significantly improve their language and school readiness skills.


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