More Effective, Less Expensive, Still Controversial: Maximizing Vocabulary Growth In Early Childhood

Our guest author today is Lisa Hansel, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers.

With all the chatter in 2013 (thanks in part to President Obama) about expanding access to high-quality early childhood education, I have high hopes for America’s children finally getting the strong foundation of knowledge and vocabulary they need to do well in—and enjoy—school.

When children arrive in kindergarten with a broad vocabulary and a love of books, both of which come from being engaged in conversations with caregivers daily and being read to frequently, they are well prepared for learning to read and write. Just as important, their language comprehension makes learning through teacher read-alouds and conversations relatively easy. The narrower the children’s vocabulary and the fewer experiences they’ve had with books, the tougher the climb to come. Sadly, far too many children don’t make the climb; they mentally dropout in middle school, and are physically adrift soon thereafter.

I can’t blame them; I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to be 6 years old and 2 years behind, or 13 years old and 5 years behind. But I can imagine an education system that does not let children down. It would start prenatally, to ensure healthy babies and parents who know the importance of conversing and reading with their children. It would be collaborative and community-oriented from infancy through high school, with schools, parents, day care centers, libraries, after school programs, museums, and other local resources building meaningful partnerships to give all children enriching experiences every day. It would be well funded, frugal, and wise, focusing on building broad knowledge, vocabulary, and skills while preventing achievement gaps through rapid, early interventions.

That dream is what keeps me going in the nutty education policy world. Every once in a while I get a glimmer that others have a similar dream, and that in fits and starts, we’re making progress. So it was at "Early Childhood Education: The Word Gap and the Common Core," a forum hosted by the Shanker Institute and the AFT.

While the whole panel was interesting, Susan Neuman stole the show. Her 15-or-so-minute presentation is well worth watching. She kicked off with the perfect metaphor: Words are just the tip of the iceberg.

The concepts and knowledge—and the opportunities to acquire them—are underneath the words. So when we talk about the word gap, Neuman explained, we’re really talking about a knowledge and concept gap. That gap has consequences. Vocabulary and knowledge in early childhood are very strong predictors of achievement in high school. The more you know, the easier it is to learn.  (The Shanker Institute has produced a terrific three-minute video on words as the tip of the iceberg that explains simple ways to build children’s vocabularies.)

Neuman reviewed Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s now-famous research into the enormous differences in how and how much different families, on average, speak with their children. In addition to the huge gaps in vocabulary that result, Neuman noted the devastating consequences of the affective differences. Children growing up in lower-income families tend to hear more negative comments and directives, as well as fewer encouraging remarks, than children in higher-income families. In a somber reminder to parents and teachers, Neuman said, “Children will stop asking questions when their questions are never answered." And so the knowledge gap grows.

She then took us on a quick run through essential findings, providing concise and compelling explanations along the way. Here are some highlights:

  • By the end of high school, students need to know tens of thousands of words.
  • Students need to learn academic, content-rich, topic-specific words.
  • Reading comprehension depends on having relevant vocabulary (and the knowledge that vocabulary represents).
  • Vocabulary is largely learned indirectly, through multiple exposures, but that does not mean it is learned without support.
  • Effective vocabulary instruction intentionally exposes students to lots of words and creates ways for those words to be practiced.
  • Adults need to make children conscious of words by intentionally using challenging, unusual words—words that stir their curiosity.
  • Oral language is the foundation for later reading and oral vocabulary growth is critical before, during, and after children learn to read.
  • Reading aloud is extremely important because texts contain many words that are hardly ever used in speech.
  • Grouping texts (including fiction and nonfiction texts) by topic into coherent categories is essential for quickly building vocabulary.
There’s only one thing I would add to Neuman’s presentation: intentionally sequencing the categories. Neuman was quite strong on explaining the need to create meaningful knowledge networks. Instead of jumping from one text and topic to the next, teachers should stay focused to give children time to hear topic-specific words in multiple contexts and to start using those words. What Neuman did not mention (but I’d like to think she would have if she had more time) is going one step further by arranging the topics and categories so that they also build on each other. Spending two to three weeks on dinosaurs, for example, is great. Then following up (in the current grade and in later grades) with related units on earth science, asteroids, and birds, for example, is even better.

If you have another 15-or-so minutes to devote to this early childhood forum, one other panelist also stood out: Barbara Bowman. She hammered home the need to address poverty, from lack of prenatal care to poor nutrition to unemployment to weak schools. And she reminded those of us focused on education that we can—and must—help ameliorate the achievement gap, but that we will not close it alone. Explaining the differences between home language and school language, she reminded us that virtually all children have sophisticated language knowledge and skills. This is important to recognize because children with minimal school language are often mistaken for children with minimal capacity to learn. That’s a terrible misconception; all that such children need is more, and more effective, opportunities to learn school language.

The one point on which I disagree with her is the utility—or lack of utility, from her perspective—of several new campaigns to get parents to talk with their children more. Bowman thinks such initiatives will be of limited value because (1) they won’t expand parents’ vocabularies and thus children won’t be exposed to any greater variety of words and (2) just providing the information on the importance of talking more will not have a lasting impact because people tend to go back to whatever they used to do fairly soon after such campaigns end. For sustained change, Bowman emphasized the need for whole communities (such as mothers who regularly interact and share parenting ideas) to change. She seemed to think that a cultural shift, rather than an individual-focused behavioral intervention, was needed.

I’m more optimistic about the potential impact of Too Small to Fail, the Thirty Million Words Initiative, Providence Talks, and the Shanker Institute’s Let’s Talk because (1) all parents know a lot more words than they routinely use in conversation with their children and (2) if these campaigns are ongoing, then perhaps the effects will be like saturation advertising and result in more permanent, widespread changes in attitudes and behaviors. With our least-advantaged toddlers, even small changes like talking about colors and sizes while folding laundry would help.

Where Bowman and I agree completely is on the need to start early. Bowman highlighted the Abecedarian Project, noting that it started in infancy to prevent a language gap from forming. As she wisely noted, that’s the more effective, less expensive route. Let’s hope we start following it soon.

- Lisa Hansel


Lisa - great post!
I agree even with your 'disagreements'. However, I am never satisfied - now that it's nearly 2014 - to read any article about language development, early literacy issues or the word gap with no mention of children who come from home languages other than English. The critical points you make here should be understood and implemented with the knowledge that they must happen in the home languages of the children. For children to deeply learn 'school language' they MUST have support for content and concepts to back up that language. When children are growing up with a non-English language, they need to learn new content in connection with what they already know and that is in their home language. That's why supporting the home language properly and using intentional strategies to bridge between home language and English in the early years will lead to stronger English "school language" later on. Who needs to know this? Blog writers, national speakers, authors, policy makers, initiative builders, cheerleaders, parents and educators. So - I don't feel like we're doing our job if we don't at least mention it in every article or speech about language development. Here's one summary of the latest research on this topic by Dr. Linda Espinosa:…


I really appreciated this post. As a teacher of preschool and kindergarten students with special needs, I see firsthand how broad the gap is between those children who are read to and conversed with, and those who are not. Reading about your vision for an education system that doesn’t let children down is inspiring, though maybe slightly depressing when thinking about how far we have to go. I agree that the best strategy for lessening the gap between students is to intervene younger for those children who need it. In this age when kindergarten is getting harder and harder, maybe mandatory pre-k and more widespread preschool programs for younger poverty-stricken children would help to alleviate the gap.

Your explanation of the word gap as actually being a concept and knowledge gap is helpful to me as a teacher. I feel the push in my classroom to work on the paper and pencil skills- getting children ready for an elementary career full of worksheets and eventually, standardized tests. However, if I am to bridge the gap and teach my students concepts, I need the time and freedom to expose them to new concepts in hands-on ways. At times, I feel pulled in a couple thousand directions at one time! Having greater parental understanding of ways to eliminate the knowledge gap, and potentially more widespread early intervention programs for younger children, could help reduce this tension for kindergarten teachers such as myself.


I also understand the connection with students who are read to before they enter preschool in kindergarten. I work with students in kindergarten and first grade who have different learning disabilities, but are still in the general ed classroom for the majority of their days. Many of these students come to school not even knowing their letter sounds, but will be able to answer questions about books that have been read to them. This shows me that these students have a disability with learning how to read, but that they have been read to and have had discussions about books that have been read. When students come to me not knowing how to read and also not able to answer even basic questions about a text, I know that this has not been worked on with them prior to coming to school. An article that I read recently talks about the concept of pre-teaching and activating background knowledge about a topic. This would be an excellent time for a teacher to also introduce new vocabulary to students so that they are better able to understand the text when they come across these new words. Teaching students new vocabulary can be done through all books that they read. It is important to find books that are not too easy for the student but also not too difficult. Doing this will allow them to use context clues to help figure out the meanings of words.


Your post expresses the idea of maximizing vocabulary growth in children at an early age. Emphasizing vocabulary growth at an early age will prepare a child to learn to read and write. As shared in your post, a child who is engaged daily in conversation and listens to stories read aloud will be prepared to read and write. I often think about the child who struggles to read, because there may be no one at home capable of helping the child with reading. There are parents or guardians who would like to help their children learn how to read and write; however, some of these adults cannot read or write; therefore, they cannot help their children practice reading and writing.

I disagree to the idea that children who grew up in lower-income families tend to hear more negative comments compared to children in higher-income families. I have met children who come from lower-income families who grew up to be successful and productive adults. Some of these individuals grew up in lower-income families, but had a family, relatives and friends that spoke positive words of encouragement in their lives. The fact they grew up in an environment hearing positive thoughts encouraged them to grow up to be successful and productive adults who had strong academic achievement in high school and beyond graduation. Also, some of these individuals had a family, relatives and friends that help them to read and write despite their economic status.

I do agree to the idea that children with limited school language are often mistaken for children who have a limited capacity to learn. Many of these children just need someone to encourage them to learn and many need more opportunities to learn school language.

Overall, I do agree that children who have limited experiences of maximizing their vocabulary at an early age may have a harder time learning to read and write. While children who have had opportunities to maximize their vocabulary growth at an early age, despite economic status, are prepared for learning to read and write.


I agree that vocabulary and knowledge in early childhood are strong predictors of achievement in high school. I also agree that the more you know, the easier it is to learn. I feel that learners who are able to link several pieces of knowledge together form a better understanding of the topic and are able to store the knowledge in their long term memory banks instead of short term memory. Of course this all falls back upon the “word gap” that begins in early childhood. When children reach Kindergarten without a strong vocabulary and are considered two years behind, they are already starting school behind their peers and will have to work hard to catch up. It must be extremely frustrating for a 6 year old to begin school already feeling as if they are “not as smart” as the other students. This word gap can be prevented by engagement of conversations, questions answered, and being read to on a daily basis. As you sated in the article, parents know a lot more words than they choose to use when conversing with their children. Parents need to be made aware that it is OK to use “higher level” words with their children and explain the meanings to build vocabularies.