Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2012

There’s a must-read piece in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante about language, poverty and academic achievement.  The article is ostensibly about the controversy over admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science.  But Bellafante wisely traces the problem back to its origins and the systemic advantage of growing up in a hyper-verbal upscale Manhattan home.

“It is difficult to overstate the advantages arrogated to a child whose parent proceeds in a near constant mode of annotation. Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate. The child, in essence, exists in continuous receipt of dictation.”

Low-income homes?  Not so much.  Bellafante describes a conversation with the founder of the Ascend Learning Charter School network, which serves largely low-income black children in Brooklyn.  “I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year,” Bellafante writes.  “He answered, without a second’s hesitation: ‘Word deficit.’”  She cites the now-familiar (hopefully) Hart and Risley study that demonstrated profound deficits in the number of words heard by children growing up in poverty in the first years of life.  She also cites E.D. Hirsch’s observation 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” [my emphasis].

In short, demographics is not destiny.  But vocabulary just might be.

Note that Hirsch cited “general knowledge AND vocabulary.”  Before we convert early childhood education into extended vocabulary enhancement exercises with word lists to be memorized, it’s essential to understand how big vocabularies are created.  We don’t learn words through memorization, but by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context, and general knowledge is context. My Core Knowledge colleague Alice Wiggins uses the example of the unfamiliar word “excrescence.”   You probably don’t know what it means, so here it is in a sentence:

 “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of plane’s cabin.”

Not helping?  Here’s another:

“Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.”

After two exposures, you might have a vague understanding of the word.  Another sentence enables you to check your understanding, or refine your definition.

 “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.”

By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of what an excrescence is.  One more sentence should verify it.

 “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.

I never gave you the definition, or asked you to look it up.  But you figured the word excrescence means an abnormal projection or outgrowth.

This is an accelerated example of how we acquire new words:  by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.  But critically, think of all the words and knowledge you already had that enabled you to learn the new word.  You know about engineers and strokes and warts.  You didn’t have to stop and wonder what “fuel efficiency” and “aerospace” and “self-conscious” mean.  You’re already rich in knowledge and vocabulary and you just got a little richer.  A child without that background knowledge hearing the same sentences would not learn the knew word and would fall a little further behind his more verbal peers.  Thank or blame the insidious “Matthew Effect.”  Bellafante’s excellent piece makes the same point implicitly with its description of the three-year-old child who understands what an upholsterer does and that the piece of furniture in his apartment is called an “ottoman.”

“All of this would seem to argue for a system in which we spent ever more of our energies and money on early, preschool education rather than less,” concludes Bellafante.

Yes, but let’s be VERY clear:  What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool.  Not even “high quality” preschool.  What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.



  1. A recent article in American Educator makes a similar point about the importance of vocabulary and parental involvement. In the article, Susan Neuman and Donna Celano also boost your point that it’s not simply money and preschool that will better outcomes, but explicit language and knowledge-rich guidance. They document how a simple equity of resources (in the form of libraries) does little to change outcomes and improve reading.

    Comment by Mark Anderson — October 8, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

  2. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. Traditionally poetry, games, and song — not lists and tests — are among the most effective ways to increase vocabulary in the early years, in addition to one-on-one conversation, of course.

    Comment by Harold — October 8, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

  3. High-quality pre-school would be nice. BUT I really cannot think that will solve the problem, not really. Unless we propose to take children in poor families away from their families (which is a super-bad idea for a gazillion reasons), then at least part of the solution has to come from parents who change their habits and work towards learning how to teach their children.

    I realize that we’re talking about parents with little education or opportunity themselves, and I’m not blaming them. But the only way to get kids a vocabulary-rich environment at home is to help the parents develop a vocabulary-rich environment at home.

    So I would want to do a bunch of small things all aimed at helping parents do that. Doctors, nurses, teachers, day-care providers should be taught and should talk about the importance of talking with the baby, singing to the baby, playing nursery rhymes with the baby, reading stories with the baby–and keep it up until the child is grown. Put up ads about it, include it in high-school courses, pay sit-coms to have Very Special Episodes, whatever. Head Start and similar programs should talk it up to parents.

    I do think that this has got to be one of the absolute most important elements of getting a child ready to do well. It’s right up there, just underneath good nutrition and dental care. (I’m a librarian, though. So I might be biased!)

    Comment by dangermom — October 8, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

  4. @Dangermom If I left the impression that preschool was THE answer, forgive me. You can’t compensate for a language-poor home environment in just a few hours a day. Interestingly I’ve previously floated the idea of “parenting PSAs” aimed at helping parents create more language rich homes:

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 8, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

  5. Unfortunately,MANY preschool teachers (and adults in general) have very poor vocabularies and many have poor grammar as well. Even newscasters have grammar and pronunciation issues… just the downward spiral of our society. Many affluent parents of children in my care seem to think giving their preschoolers an iPad and “Angry Birds” before bed is a sufficient lullaby. So sad.

    Comment by carolina walker — October 8, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  6. As the parent of a language-delayed child, the idea of vocabulary at age 6 being destiny terrifies me. I’m pretty sure that my hubby and I create a language-rich environment in our home, and my oldest child certainly picked up a good vocabulary purely through osmosis. But my youngest child has autism and her vocabulary is very much below what would be expected for her chronological age.

    She is getting speech therapy through the school district and also through our health insurance plus a 25 hr/week intensive autism preschool. I am adapting the Core Knowledge “What Your Preschooler Needs to Know” activity book to use with her after school. I just hope that she will eventually catch up.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — October 8, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

  7. The most prevalent comment I hear when I’m out with my two and a half year old granddaughter is, “Oh my, what a vocabulary she has!”. This was intentional. I have been a fan of Core Knowledge for over 15 years, but started too late with my own children. The best part of teaching a large vocabulary early? Less frustration on the part of the child.

    Comment by Cindy — October 8, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

  8. Language learning and the brain:

    Comment by Harold — October 8, 2012 @ 9:34 pm

  9. Just don’t let this become an excuse for vocabulary worksheets in preschool.

    Comment by Rachel — October 9, 2012 @ 9:23 am

  10. [...] vocabulary is destiny, memorizing word lists doesn’t help, writes Robert Pondiscio at Core Knowledge Blog. We learn [...]

    Pingback by Vocabulary is destiny — Joanne Jacobs — October 9, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  11. One thing Rob and I can clearly agree on is the importance of vocabulary in a student’s academic success. And this isn’t news. It’s been known for almost 100 years in reading research. (E.g., this is why a measure of vocabulary has always been about 2/3s of the weight of any readability formula.)

    But, as is also well known, vocabulary comes in two flavors: an oral vocabulary and a reading vocabulary. A child’s oral vocabulary reflects chiefly the child’s family and immediate community culture (including all the stories the child hears). A reading vocabulary is a different matter. And here is why a word-rich home or pre-school environment isn’t the whole answer to the reading problem. Children have to read–and want to read material beyond the primary grades that builds this reading vocabulary.

    For those of us who have struggled with learning a musical instrument and tried to encourage our children with one, the issue is the same. There is no substitute for practice. It also has to be intelligent, directed practice–to some extent.

    This is true even for children whose parents are professional musicians (and for whom many people suspect predisposing genes. E.g., the budding violinist or cellist needs to learn the right positions for his/her fingers–and so smaller instruments are used to compensate for the differences between the child and the adult.

    Unless a child is willing to read on his/her own, and unless the curriculum doesn’t increase the vocabulary difficulty of what is assigned–on a regular basis–academic success is almost impossible. But, fortunately, there are other things we can do in life–if only we visibly honored these alternative paths and encouraged young adolescents to choose them–if they wanted to. Sandra Stotsky

    Comment by Sandra — October 9, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  12. Omit the double negative in the last paragraph (“doesn’t”) and change “increase” to “increases”.

    Sorry about that.

    Comment by Sandra — October 9, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

  13. Preaching to the choir.

    When I go to the nearest Apple Store in Manhattan Beach, CA, you can hear distinctly how parents communicate with their children: complete sentences, thoughtful sentences, rich vocabulary.

    Now, let me go to the Wal-Mart at the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza in LA, and you hear a completely different type of conversation: “SHUT THE H@LL UP!” “GET YOUR A@# OVER HERE!” “PUT THAT DOWN, DAMN!”

    No teacher should be surprised when that child is 11-13 years old and talking that same way in school, and even worse can’t read a grade-level textbook.

    There’s your achievement gap, and it would take a 7-8 year continuum of stellar teachers and schools to make up even half of it, which is simply not the reality anywhere let alone our urban cores.

    Comment by Peter Ford — October 9, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

  14. Peter (comment 13) distills the achievement gap into two sentences, and renders superfluous tens of thousands of pages of books, articles, essays, and dissertations. I’ve made the same observations for at least 20 years, although in many quarters it would be very un-PC to verbalize those thoughts.

    As a society, we have to try to make up for the deficiencies of all too many parents, hence my support for many “liberal” social programs. But the “conservative” side of me knows that even the best government programs realistically only do so much to overcome the effects of awful families.

    That’s why some of the reasons given to support NCLB struck me as noble sentiments, but very unconservative and hopelessly Utopian. What thoughtful person, especially what reflective conservative, will ever believe that 100% of any age group of kids will ever be proficient in anything?

    Comment by John Webster — October 10, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  15. You’re absolutely right, Peter. A great deal of the “gap” is culture, or the lack thereof for our neediest youngsters.

    Robert’s message/orthodoxy also plays a major role in attempting to educate everyone. Kids simply have to be exposed to and then learn/master the necessary components of a rich curriculum. If they don’t, there’s no chance for their academic success.

    The trick is, I believe it to be different for each student. Some kids need an improved culture while others need a more rigorous academic program while some need a good dose of both. Sort it out, people. It’s the only way we’ll be able to get everyone to realize the American Dream..

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 10, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

  16. The American Dream, of course, being a well educated dude.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 10, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  17. “You can’t compensate for a language-poor home environment in just a few hours a day.”

    Mr. Pondiscio, I have to ask, but how do you know this? I mean, it is an empirical question, and it would be wrong to assume that the scale of the solution must equal the scale of the problem (there was a recent book that made this point, I can’t recall the name just now).

    Maybe there is a certain number of hours of exposure sufficient for a child to develop a vocabulary on par with upper-middle-class peers, and maybe that number is achievable with half-day preschooling. It’s just too early yet to dimiss the possibility.

    Comment by Hainish — October 10, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

  18. For years I have heard that it is the educational attainment of the mother that determines or at least strongly influences a child’s educational opportunity. However most women did not go to college until the last two generations and infact this form of parenting (i.e. intensive talking)is relatively recent. At some point there was a transformation form the farm and factory to middle class and those language conventions. My grandmother dropped out of junior high, never had more than an a GED, yet she had quite educated sons with very rich vocabualaries. I get a sense that the Hirsche belief is that class was not so determinative 50-75 years ago because the curriculm was richer or more standardized? Is this the long term outcome of that destandardization?

    Comment by DC Parent — October 10, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  19. A student during the school year spends less than 5% of their time in my presence in a classroom; if you include the summer, it drops to well under 4%. If a student spends only 24% of their time around teachers, and the other 76% is chaos and dysfunction, 7-8 years of Marva Collins’, Ron Clarks, and Jaime Escalantes would not have most of them applying to UCLA or Stanford.

    I do not consider it ‘culture’ that accounts for at least the tone and tenor of your conversation with your children. My grandparents had barely a HS education but did not talk that way around my parents, who both had college degrees. They may not have read Shakespeare, but I know they read the King James Bible, which is very language rich. The real (and avoided for many) issue is ETHICS, which of course we don’t engage well at all in public schools.

    Comment by Peter Ford — October 10, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

  20. You gave us four uses of “excrescence” in sentences, and yes, that did have an effect on my vocabulary development. That is an operational approach to learning a concept. We do something with the concept. Then you told us what the word means. That’s a definitional approach. You provided a definition. That also had an effect on my vocabulary development.

    For this particular word the definitional approach did more for me than the operational approach. For other words that can be quite different. I have developed this idea of operational versus definitional approach to concept development at

    I mention this because you say “it’s essential to know how big vocabularies are created”, and of course I agree.

    Learning a language is more that just vocabulary development, of course, but that is a very important part of it. I set down some thoughts on language learning in an article I titled “Some Doubts About Learning By Immersion” It’s at

    Comment by Brian Rude — October 11, 2012 @ 11:16 am

  21. OK, choir. Then what do you do when kids have decided they don’t want to read much, if anything, except for video games and such? It’s easy enough to arrange time and place for kids who need more reading practice. It’s very easy to assign more reading. And if they still don’t want to read much, what then? We need to go beyond the hand-wringing or culture-blaming stage to policy alternatives.

    I don’t see any of you suggesting what are acceptable policies for schools to take by, say, grade 8 or 9. Sandra

    Comment by Sandra — October 11, 2012 @ 11:19 am

  22. @ Sandy I’m not much for hand-wringing OR making the perfect the enemy of the good. My definition for acceptable policy is not “this fixes everything” but rather “this gets us moving in the right direction.” Organizing early childhood ed around knowledge- and language-rich classrooms makes operational sense to me and is informed by what we know about the effects of language-poor, low-SES homes.

    To put this another way, I don’t see this as a policy issue at all, but an instructional practice issue. All policy can do is encourage and incentivize good instructional practice over bad.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 11, 2012 @ 11:26 am

  23. Sandra,

    By grade eight or nine, it could be too late to “romance” kids into reading. As you know, they have a much better chance in school if they’re “reading by nine” and/or grade three. A rigorous curriculum rich in language development and competent instruction are tantamount for this to occur.

    I’ve always been an advocate of front loading the system with significant resources devoted to pre-school and early childhood education, especially for ELA development. If they’re not reading by nine, research indicates their life chances are greatly diminished.

    I’ve also often wondered why so many are in favor of ensuring funds for the remedial, post-secondary, community/junior college level? While these young people should not be ignored, I can’t help but wonder if the resources would be better spent before the horse is out of the barn.

    Again, by grade eight or nine, and the teacher has to be somewhat of a Houdini/Billy Crystal, magician/entertainer combo to impact the learning process of kids who have experienced limited success, at best, to that point in their academic careers. As well, by grade 8-9, they’re only going to have that teacher (if one is out there) for less than an hour a day. Just something else working against this cohort.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 14, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  24. The fact that women did not go into college in large numbers until the last 40 years or so does not mean that they did not have the cognitive ability to do so; it merely means that community norms did not expect/allow it. Most women of my mother’s generation (born about 1910), did not attend college but many had verbal, literacy (including composition)and numeracy skills that many college grads do not have today. This was true of many of my generation, when professional men often/usually married women with far less formal education than they had.

    I have a complete set of McGuffey’s Readers and the material is complex, despite dating from an era where most did not even attend high school. As was mentioned above, however, they did read the King James Bible. Many of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations read a chapter every night.

    The call for “high-quality” preschool, particularly for low-SES kids with language/general knowledge deficits, should be accompanied by the realization that (1)those communities cannot attract and retain large numbers of “high-quality” k-12 teachers (even as defined by the ed world, as opposed to subject knowledge), (2)Head Start was supposed to be the remedy and it was/is likely to be staffed by the adults in the community, who are likely to have signficant deficits themselves and (3) those same adults would likely staff “high-quality” preschools, as they staff the current ones. The deficits in language and in general knowledge are multi-generational. It should also be remembered that using standard grammar, complex language and advanced vocabulary are seen, in some communities, as showing off, culturally inappropriate or otherwise undesirable; thus dooming the users to outsider/target status. I’d like to see a start made by demanding safe and orderly schools, demanding appropriate disciplinary measures(many kinds thereof) for disruptive kids (whatever the reason) and high-quality curriculum choices (CK, Singapore Math etc), with MANY teacher read-alouds in the early grades.

    Comment by momof4 — October 14, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

  25. Childhood stimulation key to brain development, study finds
    Twenty-year research project shows that most critical aspect of cortex development in late teens was stimulation aged four

    It would also help if TV and movies weren’t full of overstimulating, gross trash.

    Comment by Harold — October 16, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

  26. [...] Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny. ( [...]

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  27. [...] I know certain interventions do help preschool children learn. I also know that a home environment rich in vocabulary helps some preschool children enter school with a larger vocabulary. This greater content knowledge [...]

    Pingback by Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance | Cedar's Digest — November 18, 2012 @ 10:59 am

  28. I agree with you all that there is not one solution to this problem, but that vocabulary development is a very important part of achievement. Yes, some student have a richer vocabulary due to their upbringing, and some do not.

    As a teacher of elementary students, I see that my job is to give them the richest educational environment during the 6 1/2 hours I have them a day. I cannot control their home life, or what their parents do and do not know. I can only give them my best every day while they are in my care. Poetry, language experiences, vocabulary discussions and graphic organizers, word games, reading rich text all are a part of my schedule, and are embedded into lessons throughout the day.

    In today’s society, I don’t think we can rely on or blame any entity. I think we as teachers need to carry out what we want our students be achieve. I would like to look back on every day and know that I did my utmost best to help every student be their best.

    Comment by mplet — November 19, 2012 @ 12:20 am

  29. [...] I know certain interventions do help preschool children learn. I also know that a home environment rich in vocabulary helps some preschool children enter school with a larger vocabulary. This greater content knowledge [...]

    Pingback by Myths Come From Values, Not From Ignorance « The Core Knowledge Blog — November 19, 2012 @ 8:01 am

  30. [...] Old hat to followers of this blog, perhaps, but if “better schools” or even “better teachers” is [...]

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  31. [...] old Reader’s Digest quizzes had it right: It really does pay to increase your word power.  Vocabulary is destiny.  Ed reformers, heed Hirsch: “The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is [...]

    Pingback by Vocabulary is the New Black « The Core Knowledge Blog — December 20, 2012 @ 9:31 am

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  33. [...] [...]

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  34. [...] which another participant named John Webster, in part, [...]

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  35. […] This is the same Pondiscio who said a couple years ago: […]

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  36. Reading is good “Passive” way of improving vocabulary, but when you are resorting to making lists, that is “Active” method. Problem with active method of learning words is that it is cumbersome and boring, and you doing retain and unless you use it in writing sentences to apply the word, very little chance is that you increase your lexical size.

    Improve Your Vocabulary – is an active learning tool which is personalized and makes sure you grasp the learnt words by applying it. It is lot of fun too as you can play vocab challenges with your friends.

    Give it a shot!

    Comment by dashmeet — August 5, 2014 @ 6:23 am

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