A recent New York Times article, “Before A Test, A Poverty of Words”, found here, notes the difference in the number of words young children growing up in poverty hear versus their peers whose parents are professionals. According to a study conducted by psychologists in the 1980’s, children of professionals heard, on average, about 1500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty, which creates a gap of more than 32 million words by the time the children reach the age of 4. As the article notes, kindergarten teachers in low-income neighborhoods consider this “word deficit” to be one of the greatest challenges they face with their incoming kindergarten classes. Education theorist E.D. Hirsch has noted that there is strong evidence that increasing the vocabulary and the general knowledge of a child before age 6 highly correlates with later success.

This couldn’t be clearer: Parents, we should be talking to our little ones. A lot. Telling them what we see going on, explaining what we are doing, what we know. We may know this, but we have to do it. If your child spends a lot of time with a sitter, make sure your sitter is talking to him. As we noted in an earlier GCP post, this means parents and sitters need to get off the cell phones while they are pushing that stroller around and start talking to their toddlers about all that they see.

For parents who have spent a lot of time in school or who read a lot, sharing an extensive vocabulary comes pretty easily; the trick is remembering to make time to do it. But what about parents whose vocabulary skills aren’t as strong? Find other ways to expose your young children to words: read aloud to them, signs, stories, captions. Think creatively about ways to expose your little one to as many vocabulary words as possible.

In a recent conversation which grew out of this article, an African American college admissions counselor at a highly selective school attributes his love of words and his impressive vocabulary (despite his parents’ limited education) to the amount of time his family spent in church. He notes that at church you would learn to recite popular passages in the somewhat stilted language of the Bible, hear the highly respected preachers and Sunday School teachers quote Scripture and then “make it plain”, translating those Biblical phrases into understandable English while teaching valuable life lessons. Joining this conversation was an African American scholar who added: “The [sermons] delivered each Sunday by the preacher, riffing on a set verse for the week, brought the King’s English in the King James Bible alive in a way that even the best literature classes find it difficult to do. In other words, the Black church made language sing”. While the younger toddlers might have a bit of trouble sitting still for the sermon, in church you will often find young ones happy to be in the pews with the adults, enjoying the music and soaking up the words. It has been harder to find older children there during recent visits with my teenaged sons–parents, they could benefit too!)

Parents, we can’t overemphasize this point: our young children need to be exposed to as many words as possible. They are little sponges during those toddler years. Let’s make the supreme effort to give them lots of words and concepts to absorb.