Tuesday, October 9, 2012
It's All About Vocabulary?
The edusphere is abuzz about this NY Times piece on early vocabulary growth that ran over the weekend. Though the piece focuses on the current controversy surrounding test-based admissions to the top high schools in NYC, it's mostly based on the famous Hart and Risley book in which the authors conclude that children from families on welfare hear 32 million fewer words and 560,000 fewer encouragements than children of professional families between birth and age 4 -- and that these differences lead to subsequent differences in vocabulary and achievement.
To reinforce the importance of this early vocabulary growth, the article quotes a charter school principal saying that the "word deficit" is the greatest challenge the school faces and quotes E.D. Hirsch saying that "there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success".
This all leads Robert Pondiscio to write that "Demography isn't destiny. Vocabulary is destiny".
Ok, stop. Just stop.
Yes. Vocabulary is important. And vocabulary growth in the early years is crucially important. Every person or organization responsible for raising young kids should aim to use and explain as many words words and concepts as possible.
But, c'mon. Let's not get carried away.
The second we identify something -- anything -- as the "single" most important, we do ourselves and our nation's children a disservice. I understand the allure of boiling everything down to the simplest solution possible, but life just doesn't work that way.
And arguing that vocabulary -- rather than demography -- is destiny? That's just silly.
For starters, we have what economists would call an "endogeneity problem" in that statement. An awful lot of what's driving the vocabulary of a child entering kindergarten is also driving the success of that kid later in school: parenting, myriad environmental conditions and social factors in the child's home and neighborhood, health, peers, genetics, and a thousand other things. In other words: a child with a large vocabulary at age 4 is likely to succeed in school partly b/c of that vocabulary, but more so because the conditions that created that vocabulary will almost certainly continue to foster intellectual growth and social development throughout his/her school years.
Second, an awful lot of what drives vocabulary growth is demography. The education level of one's parent(s) and other adult supervisors, the amount of stimulation available in one's surroundings (including the number of different objects one can learn about), the noise level inside and outside of one's home, the levels of stress to which a child and his/her family are exposed, the number of books available, and hundreds of other home, neighborhood, and family factors correlated with socio-economic status all result in a child learning more or fewer words. So arguing that vocabulary is more important than demography in school is like arguing that strength is more important than weightlifting in football.
So, please, let's stop trying to reduce everything to the one, most important factor (which is surely more important than the factor the last person discussed). The fewer things we focus on, the more distorted those measures become. And the simpler we make the problem seem, the more simplistic our solutions. Vocabulary certainly deserves some of our attention. Now let's discuss what else deserves our attention instead of how much less they deserve it.
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I have horrible visions of studies like this being used as an excuse for vocabulary drills in pre-school.
At the risk of making you do a little work, Corey, next time try reading my entire argument, not just the headline on the piece.
My piece makes the case for a very broad education as a means of building language proficiency, vocabulary and background knowledge. You're acquainted enough with my work and thought to know that I do not and have not ever advocated for silver bullet remedies. You're being disingenuous -- dishonest, frankly -- to say otherwise.
Robert, of course I read your entire post.
Robert -- I think more than you probably intended, it would be easy to come away from your piece thinking "okay, just teach them enough words by age 6 and everything will be fine."
And though you see a rich, information-based curriculum as the best route to teaching vocabulary, I've come not to underestimate the tendency of the "silver bullet" crowd to stomp out subtlety and richness.
<<< it would be easy to come away from your piece thinking "okay, just teach them enough words by age 6 and everything will be fine."
Simply not possible. You can't remediate the effects of a language poor home by age six. The point -- obvious, I thought -- was to highlight the profound long-term impact of the early effects of low language proficiency and the need to organize education around addressing it from the earliest possible moment.
You can't remediate the effects of a language poor home by age six. The point -- obvious, I thought -- was to highlight the profound long-term impact of the early effects of low language proficiency and the need to organize education around addressing it from the earliest possible moment.
That simply isn't going to happen. Not unless we institute something like boarding schools for all poor children from the age of 6 months or so forward.
Which means that children from wealthier families will continue to do better than children from poorer families, and schools will continue to serve as barriers to social mobility. We like to think of them as the opposite but that serves our vanity rather than poor children.
We have spent the last 60 years making schooling more and more important. Perhaps we should spend the next 60 reversing some of the bad effects of that.
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