Early Vocabulary Development and the Common Core

In a democratic community—especially a gridlocked democratic community—public rhetoric always has a somewhat strained relationship with facts. When we want to persuade our opponents that our proposed reforms are critically important, it’s tempting and sometimes even necessary to use the most dramatic words available. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a function of making public persuasion a primary lever for changing public policy. It’s one of democracy’s features—not a bug.

There’s always a risk, however, that advocates will forget that their hyperbolic rhetoric is, at base, still rhetoric. For instance, if they come to believe their doomsday proclamations, they’ll soon conclude that a very real apocalypse is just over the horizon.

I think that the early education community sometimes flirts too closely with that danger. While spotlighting the substantial, very early language gaps between low-income infants and toddlers is an effective strategy for raising awareness and persuading the skeptical, it can also spark despair. After all, if achievement gaps are already detectable in 18-month-old children, what hope can there be of ever building early education programs of sufficient quality to close them? Are our best early education efforts arriving too late?

A new article in this summer’s edition of American Educator recognizes this danger. Professors Susan Neuman and Tanya Wright write:

By first grade, unfortunately…children from high-income families are likely to know about twice as many words as children from low-income families, putting these children at a significantly higher risk for school failure. Even more disturbing, however, is that these statistics are often treated as inevitable, more or less a byproduct of poverty or low-income status.

Fortunately, Neuman and Wright go on to show that these dire data are not destiny. They note that the pre-K years are prime time for children’s linguistic development, and cite research showing that high-quality programs can make a huge difference for children’s vocabulary growth.

After all, if achievement gaps are already detectable in 18-month-old children, what hope can there be of ever building early education programs of sufficient quality to close them?

For instance, they note that young children develop their vocabulary by building relationships between words and real experiences. They test how words fit against the objects they encounter, and codify new ones as their meanings become clear. Students learn words by learning to use words—and this process is “cumulative.” This means that vocabulary acquisition builds upon past vocabulary and piles up over time.

To some degree, vocabulary can be taught directly by teachers explicitly calling attention to words and their definitions. Even better, they can build vocabulary by consciously teaching words that make up a “knowledge network.” Neuman and Wright found that “clustering words within categories facilitated children’s comprehension and provided promising evidence of accelerating word learning. Of course, children also need opportunities to use these words—that is, to take them from explicitly-emphasized terms into implicit elements of their vocabularies.

What’s more, they suggest that the architects of the Common Core State Standards designed them with these—and other—strategies of vocabulary development in mind. The standards ask students to glean meaning from texts and use it as evidence to support positions they articulate. This emphasis nudges teachers towards explicitly teaching new words to support student comprehension of grade-level texts. It also pushes teachers to integrate literacy instruction and student use of texts to support arguments across subject areas.

There’s no question that the urgency around early word gaps is real. But it’s important to keep clear—like Neuman and Wright assert – that high-quality early education programs can meet that critical need.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams