Stanford University study: Affluent children have better vocabulary and language skills

22 Oct

Educators have long recognized the importance of vocabulary in reading and learning. Francie Alexander writes in the Scholastic article, Understanding Vocabulary:

Why is vocabulary s-o-o important?
Vocabulary is critical to reading success for three reasons:
1. Comprehension improves when you know what the words mean. Since comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading, you cannot overestimate the importance of vocabulary development.
2. Words are the currency of communication. A robust vocabulary improves all areas of communication — listening, speaking, reading and writing.
3. How many times have you asked your students or your own children to “use your words”? When children and adolescents improve their vocabulary, their academic and social confidence and competence improve, too.http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/understanding-vocabulary

A University of Chicago study, “Quality of early parent input predicts child vocabulary three years later,” published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the importance of parental involvement at an early stage of learning. See more at: http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2013/06/24/giving-children-non-verbal-clues-about-words-boosts-vocabularies#sthash.V4f1L1Vb.dpuf

Motoko Rich reported in the New York Times article, Language-Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K:

Nearly two decades ago, a landmark study found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than those of less educated parents, giving them a distinct advantage in school and suggesting the need for increased investment in prekindergarten programs.
Now a follow-up study has found a language gap as early as 18 months, heightening the policy debate.
The new research by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, which was published in Developmental Science this year, showed that at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes.
The new findings, although based on a small sample, reinforced the earlier research showing that because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households, early literacy experts, preschool directors and pediatricians said. In the new study, the children of affluent households came from communities where the median income was $69,000; the low-income children came from communities with a median income of $23,900.
Since oral language and vocabulary are so connected to reading comprehension, the most disadvantaged children face increased challenges once they enter school and start learning to read.
“That gap just gets bigger and bigger,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocate of early education for low-income children. “That gap is very real and very hard to undo….”
But at a time when a majority of public schoolchildren in about a third of the states come from low-income families, according to the Southern Education Foundation, those who are pushing for higher preschool enrollment say that investing in the youngest children could save public spending later on.
In the latest data available from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, 28 percent of all 4-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in state-financed preschool in the 2010-11 school year, and just 4 percent of 3-year-olds.
The National Governors Association, in a report this month calling on states to ensure that all children can read proficiently by third grade, urges lawmakers to increase access to high-quality child care and prekindergarten classes and to invest in programs for children from birth through age 5. In New York, the Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has said he would tax high-income earners to pay for universal prekindergarten in the city.
“A lot of states are saying, ‘Let’s get to the early care providers and get more of them having kids come into kindergarten ready,’ ” said Richard Laine, director of education for the National Governors Association. That way, he said, “we’re not waiting until third grade and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we have so many kids overwhelming our remediation system.’ ”
Currently, 17 states and the District of Columbia have policies requiring that third graders be held back if they do not meet state reading proficiency standards, according to theEducation Commission of the States.
Now, with the advent of the Common Core, a set of rigorous reading and math standards for students in kindergarten through 12th grade that has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, educators say the pressure to prepare young children is growing more intense.
Literacy experts have previously documented a connection between a child’s early vocabulary and later success in reading comprehension. In a study tracking children from age 3 through middle school, David Dickinson, now a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, and Catherine Snow, an education professor at Harvard University, found that a child’s score on a vocabulary test in kindergarten could predict reading comprehension scores in later grades.
Mr. Dickinson said he feared that some preschool teachers or parents might extract the message about the importance of vocabulary and pervert it. “The worst thing that could come out of all this interest in vocabulary,” he said, “is flash cards with pictures making kids memorize a thousand words.”
Instead, literacy experts emphasize the importance of natural conversations with children, asking questions while reading books, and helping children identify words during playtime.
Even these simple principles may be hard to implement, some educators say, because preschool instructors are often paid far less than public schoolteachers and receive scant training. In one study, Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, found that in observations of 700 preschool classrooms across 11 states, teachers in less than 15 percent of the classes demonstrated “effective teacher-student interactions.”
“There is a lot of wishful thinking about how easy it is, that if you just put kids in any kind of program that this will just happen,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, referring to the development of strong vocabularies and other preliteracy skills.
Literacy experts and publishing companies are rushing to develop materials for teachers. Scholastic Inc., the children’s book publisher, for example, began selling the Big Day for Pre-K program to preschools three years ago. Collections of books come with specific question prompts like “I see a yellow taxi. What do you see?”
Educators and policy makers say they also must focus increasingly on parents……
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/us/language-gap-study-bolsters-a-push-for-pre-k.html?ref=education&_r=0

Here is the Stanford University press release:

Stanford Report, September 25, 2013
Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find
Research by Stanford psychologists reveals that 2-year-old children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in language development. Future work aims to devise intervention methods.
BY BJORN CAREY
Fifty years of research has revealed the sad truth that the children of lower-income, less-educated parents typically enter school with poorer language skills than their more privileged counterparts. By some measures, 5-year-old children of lower socioeconomic status score more than two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school.
Stanford researchers have now found that these socioeconomic status (SES) differences begin to emerge much earlier in life: By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.
The study, published in Developmental Science, is the first to identify an “achievement gap” in language processing skill at such a young age and could inform strategies to intervene and bring children up to speed.
In an experiment designed to investigate children’s vocabulary and language processing speed,Anne Fernald, a Stanford associate professor of psychology, enrolled 20 children, 18 months old, who lived near the Stanford campus, and tested how quickly and accurately they identified objects based on simple verbal cues. Follow-up tests six months later measured how these skills developed.
Research conducted in university laboratories commonly relies on a “convenience sample” of local participants who are usually affluent and highly educated. Since children in these higher SES families have many other advantages as well, the results of such research do not represent the majority of children living in less privileged circumstances in the United States.
To include a broader range of children in her research, Fernald took her lab on the road. She duplicated the experimental setup of her Stanford-based lab in a 30-feet-long RV and drove to a city a few hours north of campus, where the median household income and education levels are much lower on average than in the Bay Area.
The researchers recruited another 28 toddlers, aged roughly 18 months, from this lower SES population and performed the same experiments as they had on campus. Then they retested the children six months later when they turned 2 years old to see how they had progressed.
The beginning of the language gap
Fernald has devised an elegant test for measuring toddlers’ language processing speed. Sitting on their mother’s lap, the kids are shown two images; for example, a dog and a ball. A recorded voice then instructs the toddler to “look at the ball” while a high-definition video camera records the child’s reaction.
Trained “coders” then review the video frame by frame and note the exact moment that a child’s gaze begins to shift toward the target object. In this way, toddlers’ efficiency in language understanding can be measured with millisecond-level precision.
At 18 months, toddlers in the higher SES group could identify the correct object in about 750 milliseconds, while the lower SES toddlers were 200 milliseconds slower to respond.
“A 200-millisecond difference in response time at 18 months may not sound like much, but it’s huge in terms of mental processing speed,” Fernald said.
Both groups of children got faster with age, but at 24 months the lower SES children just barely reached the level of processing efficiency that the higher SES children had achieved at 18 months.
The researchers also asked parents to report on their children’s vocabularies at these age points. Between 18 and 24 months, the higher SES children added more than 260 new words to their vocabulary, while the lower SES children learned 30 percent fewer new words over this period.
“By 2 years of age, these disparities are equivalent to a six-month gap between infants from rich and poor families in both language processing skills and vocabulary knowledge,” Fernald said. “What we’re seeing here is the beginning of a developmental cascade, a growing disparity between kids that has enormous implications for their later educational success and career opportunities.”
Kids learn from context
Fernald suggests that slower processing rates are partly responsible for slower vocabulary growth in the early years. Toddlers learn new vocabulary from context, and the faster a child can get at the words she knows, the more able she is to attend to the next word in the sentence and to learn any new words that follow.
“If you say ‘the dog is on the sofa,’ and the baby at 18 months is slow to process ‘dog,’ they’re not open for business when ‘sofa’ comes along,” Fernald said. “If they’re quick on ‘dog’ and understand that the dog is on something, but don’t know what it is, the faster kids are more likely to learn ‘sofa’ from the context.”
This link between early processing speed and language learning is supported by other results from Fernald’s research group. In studies following both English- and Spanish-learning toddlers over several years, they found that children who are faster at recognizing familiar words at 18 months have larger vocabularies at age 2 years and score higher on standardized tests of language and cognition in kindergarten and elementary school.
Seeking a solution
Where do such early differences among children come from? One critical factor is that parents differ in the amount of language stimulation they provide to their infants. Several studies show that parents who talk more with their children in an engaging and supportive way have kids who are more likely to develop their full intellectual potential than kids who hear very little child-directed speech.
“For lots of reasons, there is generally less supportive talk to children in families living in poverty, which could partially explain the SES differences we found in children’s early processing skill and vocabulary learning,” Fernald said.
In previous research on caregivers’ speech to Spanish-learning children, Fernald’s group found big differences in levels of parental engagement even within a disadvantaged group of families. Those lower SES kids who heard more child-directed talk got faster in processing and learned language more rapidly.
“It’s clear that SES is not destiny,” Fernald said. “The good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their child to learn more quickly.” http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/september/toddler-language-gap-091213.html

Moi wrote about the importance of parental involvement in Missouri program: Parent home visits:
One of the mantras of this blog is that education is a partnership between the student, parent(s) or guardian(s), teacher(s), and the school. All parts of the partnership must be involved. Many educators have long recognized that the impact of social class affects both education achievement and life chances after completion of education. There are two impacts from diversity, one is to broaden the life experience of the privileged and to raise the expectations of the disadvantaged. Social class matters in not only other societies, but this one as well. A few years back, the New York Times did a series about social class in America. That series is still relevant. Janny Scott and David Leonhardt’s overview, Shadowy Lines That Still Divide
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/15/national/class/OVERVIEW-FINAL.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 describes the challenges faced by schools trying to overcome the disparity in education. The complete series can be found at Class Matters http://www.nytimes.com/national/class/

Teachers and administrators as well as many politicians if they are honest know that children arrive at school at various points on the ready to learn continuum. Teachers have to teach children at whatever point on the continuum the children are. Jay Matthews reports in the Washington Post article, Try parent visits, not parent takeovers of schools. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/try-parent-visits-not-parent-takeovers-of-schools/2012/05/30/gJQAlDDz2U_story.html
The key ingredient is parental involvement. The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (Council) has a great policy brief on parental involvement. http://www.wccf.org/pdf/parentsaspartners_ece-series.pd
https://drwilda.com/2012/05/30/missouri-program-parent-home-visits/

Related:

Baby sign language https://drwilda.com/2013/07/28/baby-sign-language/

The importance of the skill of handwriting in the school curriculum
https://drwilda.com/2012/01/24/the-importance-of-the-skill-of-handwriting-in-the-school-curriculum/

The slow reading movement
https://drwilda.com/2012/01/31/the-slow-reading-movement/

Why libraries in K-12 schools are important
https://drwilda.com/2012/12/26/why-libraries-in-k-12-schools-are-important/

University of Iowa study: Variation in words may help early learners read better
https://drwilda.com/2013/01/16/university-of-iowa-study-variation-in-words-may-help-early-learners-read-better/

Where information leads to Hope. © Dr. Wilda.com

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