Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Moving Past the 30 Million Word Debate

Hart and Risley’s 1992 study (http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1993-09151-001) sparked the debate about the link between family socioeconomic status, language development and the achievement gap. The landmark study has been used as justification for a wide range of interventions,  including home visiting programs, that attempt to eliminate what has been known as the 30 Million Word Gap. It has also been criticized for the size of the study, the sweeping conclusions made about the findings of the study, and the cultural complexities overlooked by the authors.

A recent NPR-ED article attempted to break down the study, the criticism and the possible steps forward (https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/06/01/615188051/lets-stop-talking-about-the-30-million-word-gap). Regardless of where on the spectrum of debate you land, there are a few things we as early childhood educators can do to promote language development, specifically vocabulary, in young children.
First, give children interesting items and experiences to talk about. Teachers can create an engaging classroom with items that spark children’s interests. For example, a collection of different rocks or shells can lead to a fun conversation about the attributes of each rock. Children can sort items or simply use them as props in the block or dramatic play areas, all of which encourage rich serve and return language experiences. Natural materials are more complex than mass-produced toys. The complexity allows for more conversations about the items. 

Field trips, whether to museums, zoos, libraries, the neighborhood park or the local bakery, provide a language rich environment full of new vocabulary words. Talk to the children before the trip to gain an understanding of what they already know. Talk to the children during the trip about what they are seeing and experiencing. Engage children in follow up conversations and activities related to the trip to extend the learning and solidify new vocabulary words. Drawing pictures of the field trip, especially if they write or dictate a short story about their field trip experience, or recreating the setting in the block area help the children solidify the experience in their memory and give you an opportunity to reinforce the key vocabulary words related to the field trip in a fun and natural way.

Second, make your classroom culturally responsive. Work with the parents in your classroom to incorporate family stories, songs, and traditions that compliment what children do at home. The parent-school connection provides continuity between what conversations the children are having at home and what they do at school. As noted in the NPR article, many researchers see the word gap as more of a school-home mismatch than an actual gap. We can be an important bridge between home and school culture. We, children and adults, feel more comfortable and eager to learn when our values and traditions are represented and valued. This article provides a wealth of resources on culturally responsive teaching: https://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/culturally-responsive-teaching.pdf

Finally, teachers play a key role in the language experiences children have during critical years of their lives. Engaging in genuine and respectful serve and return conversations with children does so much more than give children access to new vocabulary words, it shows children they are valued members of the learning community. Ask children about their opinions, their experiences, and their interests. A quiet child might light up and become very talkative when asked about their favorite book, TV show or toy. Simple changes to how we respond can make a big difference. Instead of saying you like a child’s painting, you can say, “Tell me about your painting.” Ask children why they chose a specific color to use in a picture, or ask a child about what they built in the block area. Showing interest in their actions and words give children a powerful message: their words and thoughts are important. 

Post Author:

Stephanie Bynum is the Vice President of Programs at Kohl Children’s Museum of Greater Chicago. She has over 25 years of experience in early childhood teaching, program administration and adult education. Stephanie has a B.S. in Early Childhood Education from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and a M.S. in Child Development from Erikson Institute. Prior to working at Kohl Children's Museum, she was the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs at Erikson Institute where she oversaw the Administration Specialization, worked closely with Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative, taught Master’s level courses and was a key member of the institute’s Assessment Committee.  At Kohl Children's Museum, Stephanie is a member of the senior team. She oversees the Exhibits, Education and Visitor Experience Departments. Current projects include the creation of a website resource for teachers implementing The Project Approach, designing developmentally appropriate hands-on technology programming, and creating a pop up museum to serve locations in northern Lake County, IL.  Stephanie served on Chicago Zoological Society’s NatureStart Advisory Board and Illinois Gateways Professional Development Advisory Council. She currently serves on the Gertrude B. Nielsen Child Care Center Board and is the Growth Director for Illinois Destination Imagination. Stephanie presents internationally on early childhood education topics.

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