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For Vocabulary Development, Talking is Teaching

Ann O'Leary
By Ann O'Leary

The gap in school performance among minority students or those of a lower socioeconomic status is nothing new to the world of education policy. Yet it’s become increasingly clear that one of the early mechanisms of this difference in achievement – and one of the drivers behind our initiative, Too Small to Fail – is a distressing gap in the number of words some children experience when they enter school.

A word gap apparent by age 3 affects everything from early literacy and academic performance, to long-term success in school. Unfortunately, all too often poorer children consistently register smaller vocabularies than their wealthier peers.   

What Too Small to Fail recognizes is that talking is teaching – a finding confirmed by research that emphasizes the importance of early interactions to aid vocabulary development.

But we also make clear that this is not simply an issue of volume. The quality of a parent’s interaction and the depth of their engagement matters far more than if children were taught lists of new words each day.

This is because a child’s mind – as research has confirmed – is a flexible canvas. But like any painting, the individual elements make little sense without a frame, without a structure to bind it all together. Esther Quintero, a senior researcher at the Albert Shanker Institute, captures this point with particular skill.

Rather than learning words in small silos by memorization, learning is best when it is a dynamic exploration of ideas and concepts that allow a child to explore and ask questions as part of her effort to understand.

Unfortunately, significant obstacles stand in the way of parents and caregivers who try and achieve this ideal. Quality childcare for working parents can be unaffordable or inaccessible; schedules at work can be grueling and inflexible; and many families at every income bracket face the struggle of tag-team parenting that forces them to miss out on time with their children.

This is why Ms. Quintero’s focus on quality when it comes to words and learning is so valuable, because it pushes us to recognize the multiple stresses and roadblocks families face on the path to quality interactions with their children.        

In fact, Too Small to Fail has written broadly about creating a deeper attachment between children and their parents, teaching creatively by encouraging problem solving and speaking in richer sentences, and making sure that we also acknowledge – and then substantively address – inflexible work arrangements that keep parents away from their kids.

As the fact sheet for the campaign suggests, everyday interactions, such as a trip to the grocery store or a walk through the park, are occasions to talk more. And by reading more frequently, singing songs, and engaging a child’s mental flexibility, we can multiply the number of opportunities available for not only new words to come in to use, but for a child’s mental map to begin to be populated by words and phrases grounded in experience and context.

The encouraging news for this type of effort is that the latest in brain science research tells us that we can make a difference. A child’s mind is wired to learn, forming neural connections so quickly in the first few years of life that roughly 3,500 connections form in the average baby’s brain just in the time it takes to read this sentence.      

Indeed, pioneering research from Stanford psychologist Ann Fernald is beginning to unpack the process by which children acquire and maintain language. For example, her work has confirmed that directed speech improves early vocabulary, and that “processing efficiency” early on in life – or the ability to pick up language cues and deconstruct syntax and grammar to learn a larger number of words much faster – is a key pathway to learning a greater number of words early on in life.

These findings open up new opportunities to develop critical interventions for children while confirming that income and demography are not destiny.

As a campaign meant to meet parents and caregivers where they are, Too Small to Fail must speak concisely and directly to their needs while working earnestly to ensure that their children get the best shot at a good life. We are providing concrete, easy to understand actions that parents can take every day to improve their children’s lives.

And while every type of talk is not equal, if we can span this first breach and get parents talking with their children more and in a variety of contexts, we’re on the surest footing yet to tackle longer-term academic achievement and set the cornerstone for lifelong success.

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