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.