Thursday, July 30, 2015

The 30 Million Word Gap: The Importance of Monitoring Progress

In the last post on July 23rd, I ended the piece by saying:

“Despite that fact that age related sequences are not completely mapped out for all domains of oral language, we should use the knowledge we do have to monitor whether or not children are mastering oral language skills at a pace that will allow them to become successful learners, thinkers and readers.  We want them to be “ready for school,” but we also want them to continue to be successful throughout their school years.”

Here are some additional links mapping out developmental sequences for the 4 levels of language:

Sentences: Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek

Looking at Words in More Depth

A Word Gap

The research literature tells us that some children will have a 30 million word gap by the time they are 3.  We learn from an article in Education Week about research by Hart and Risley (Meaningful Differences) who studied children of different backgrounds as they developed vocabulary from 7 months to 3 years.

The researchers found that, on average, children from professional families heard more than 2,150 words an hour. Those in working-class families heard about 1,250 words. Children in families on welfare heard little more than 600 words an hour.……

The hourly estimates from those original 42 families were extrapolated to predict that by age 3, children of professionals would hear about 45 million words, compared with only 13 million for a child in poverty—the source of the 30 million-word gap…

We know from subsequent research that this gap (The Achievement Gap) continues to exist.  We need to know why, to what extent, and what we can do about it.

A deeper look at the developmental sequence for words.

In their book, “How Babies Talk,” Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek trace “vocabulary” development from 8 to 12 to 24 months.  They describe children who said their first “real” words: at 12 months (Priscilla), at 18 months (Edgar), and at 17.5 months (Michael).  They include details about “first” word appearance for each of these children, including the information that Michael “had one continuous ear infection from 9 to 13 months” and Priscilla “is the firstborn child of two English professors.”  Knowing context matters when time frames are used to suggest what is “normal” development.

They define “real” words as having four characteristics: (pp 93-94)

1 The same word is used consistently to signal the same meaning.

2 The word the baby uses approximates the sound of the conventional word used by the family.

3 The word is spoken with the intention to communicate and not just as something the baby is immediately imitating.

4 The word is used in a variety of settings to name items of the same type that the child had not heard anyone name before.

The next big benchmark in word/vocabulary learning is the “vocabulary spurt.” 

“Some time after toddlers have learned about 50 words, around 19 to 21 months on average, the entire character of word learning changes….) (p. 115) 

                During the last half of the second year toddlers often experience an explosive period of vocabulary growth, including words their parents would wish they didn’t have. The rate has been estimated at nine new words a day, 63 new words per week….”

                The authors continue… “In this chapter we examine the “vocabulary spurt” or the “naming explosions.” What are toddlers doing at this time?  What kinds of words are they saying?  How are they saying them? ….What is going on behind the scenes that allow the vocabulary spurt to occur?....Finally, the chapter concludes with a discussion of toddlers who reach the vocabulary spurt more slowly than their peers.  We focus on red flags in early language learning and look at populations of toddlers who approach word learning in a less standard way.” (p. 116)

How do we/can we monitor growth in word/vocabulary development?

Hoffman, Teale and Paciga suggest that we need to go beyond just counting words.

Assessing Vocabulary in  the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 2014, Vol. 14(4) 459–481


“There is widespread agreement with in the field of early childhood education that vocabulary is important to literacy achievement and that reading aloud can support vocabulary growth. However, there are unexplored and significant problems with the ways we assess young children’s vocabulary learning from read-alouds. This paper critically reviews the forms of vocabulary assessment commonly used with young children, examining the benefits and drawbacks of each. This review found: (a) general vocabulary measures are not practical, meaningful measures for vocabulary learning of specific words from books read aloud, (b) researcher-developed measures for specific words from books read aloud that mimic normed general vocabulary measures include serious threats to validity and reliability, and (c) other forms of measurement, such as soliciting definitions from children, are difficult to score reliably. This critical review of existing vocabulary assessments of word learning from read-alouds concludes that researchers and practitioners should carefully consider their needs for assessment data so as to choose, design and balance the uses of assessments to meet their needs for meaningful, reliable data.”

In their conclusion, they say:

….“By choosing, designing and balancing uses of assessments to meet various needs for information, researchers and practitioners can best capitalize on the strengths of each form of assessment to inform instructional design and ultimately improve student  learning.”….

Why is monitoring so important and how we do it?

*To eliminate the 30 million word gap

*To assess the effectiveness of our “developmentally appropriate” practice

*To plan instruction and timely intervention

As a starting point, let me highlight several “core considerations in developmentally appropriate practice” as advocated in the 2009 position paper of the NAEYC.  Although all of the considerations are important, I am highlighting those that seem especially relevant to helping children develop the oral language skills they need to be successful learners, thinkers, and readers.  These guidelines suggest what we need to pay attention to, when, and how.

 Beginning with 3 areas of knowledge to consider in making decisions:

1 What is known about child development and learning—referring to knowledge of age-related characteristics that permits general predictions about what experiences are likely to best promote children’s learning and development.

2 What is known about each child as an individual—referring to what practitioners learn about each child that has implication for how best to adapt and be responsive to that individual variation.

3 What is known about the social and cultural contexts in which children live…?


In addition, we note the 12 “Principles of child development and learning that inform practices” and highlight several that are relevant to monitoring progress in oral language development:

2.  Many aspects of children’s learning and development follow well documented sequences with later abilities, skills, and knowledge building on those already acquired.

3 Development and learning proceed at varying rates from child to child, as well as at uneven rates cross different areas of a child’s individual development.

4 Development and learning results from a dynamic and continuous interaction of biological maturation and experience.

5 Early experiences have profound effects, both cumulative and delayed, on a child’s development and learning and optimal periods exist for certain types of development and learning to occur.

6 Development proceeds toward greater complexity, self-regulation, and symbolic or representational capacities.

8 Development and learning occur in and are influenced by multiple social and cultural contexts

9 Always mentally active in seeking to understand the world around them, children learn in a variety of ways; a wide range of teaching strategies and interactions are effective in supporting all these kinds of learning.

10 Play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation as well as for promoting language, cognition, and social competence.

11 Development and learning advance when children are challenged to achieve at a level just beyond their current mastery, and also when they have many opportunities to practice newly acquired skills.


Other questions about monitoring:

What tools are there for monitoring language development across all 4 levels—sounds, words, sentences, discourse?

How often should we monitor progress?

How do we use those tools?

What do we do with the information we gain from monitoring?


For additional information and links on “word” development, see Oral Language: Words (Part 1 of 5)







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