In a recent NY Times article, Before a Test, A Poverty of Words , the single greatest challenge facing young children as they enter kindergarten is “word deficit” (NY Times, October 5, 2012). This observation is foundational to understanding the “achievement gap” that too many of this nation’s students experience, especially those impacted by poverty, when they fail to meet 4 th grade reading benchmarks. In truth, the earliest evidence of these academic differences should more accurately be identified as a “preparation gap” caused by children’s limited access to high-quality early learning experiences.
A growing consensus in cognitive research points to the critical nature of the first five years of life. The National Research Councils’ landmark report, Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (2000) demonstrates how the brain develops in direct response to learning experiences that occur during the earliest stages of development. “Skill begets skill as brains are built in a hierarchical fashion…increasingly complex circuits and skills build on simpler circuits and skills over time” (Shonkoff & Bales, 2011, p. 23). But, as Hart & Risley (1995) demonstrated, children living in families impacted by poverty heard 30 million fewer words before the age of four, than their more affluent peers. This difference is more chasm than deficit; and without intentional effort to build children’s receptive and expressive vocabulary, this chasm grows wider with each passing year. Vocabulary learning is cumulative and a sensitivity to word learning needs to be established early if it is to support children’s reading proficiency by third grade.
The effects of poverty on children’s lives must not be underestimated, but “poverty itself appears to have no direct effect on children’s intellectual functioning” (Neuman, 2008, p. 4). Poverty can certainly constrain the resources a family can provide to influence children’s learning, such as books and writing materials. Poverty can also limit family outings to a museum or zoo to stimulate language and cognitive development. But, poverty does not alter children’s ability or desire to learn (Neuman, 2008).
So how do we improve children’s early language development? In a recent evaluation of a federally funded Early Reading First project, children who were enrolled in urban classrooms supported by literacy coaches that implemented an evidence-based language and literacy curriculum, and provided individualized classroom learning experiences informed by progress monitoring, demonstrated statistically significant gains in receptive vocabulary, as well as other key areas of literacy development (Zoll, 2012). Classrooms were infused with language, vocabulary was highlighted in all domains of learning, dialogic reading or multiple readings each with a specific purpose were implemented into the classroom schedule. Science experiences were integrated into the curriculum and academic language was promoted in all domains of learning. In other words, children previously identified as being “at risk” were now enrolled in high quality early childhood education – and in a single academic year the intervention markedly closed the vocabulary chasm prior to the children entering kindergarten.
Inequality begins early and it extends into the very beliefs we have about young children who live in poverty and their ability to learn. Lisa Delpit (2006) points out that we are flooded with research linking school failure to socioeconomic status, cultural differences, and single-parent households, encouraging assumptions of deficits in students. “What happens when we assume that certain children are less than brilliant? Our tendency is to teach less, to teach down, to teach for remediation (Delpit, 2012, p. 6). Instead of viewing children as “at risk for failure” we who are engaged in the education of young children must see them as “a promise” for academic success (Swadener, 2000, p. 118). As policymakers, educators, and citizens of a democratic society, we carry the responsibility of providing all children with an equitable, high-quality early childhood education. “If we intend to have a democracy in this country; we must educate well. If we are committed to one America for all people…we must give every child equal access to a real education” (Cananda, 2005, p. 144).
Susan Zoll specializes in early childhood education and children’s language and literacy development. Her experiences range from classroom teacher and school administrator to her most recent work as a literacy coach and Director of Professional Development for four US Department of Education grants: Early Reading First (ERF 2004, 2006, 2009) and an Early Childhood Educators Professional Development grant (ECEPD 2006) awarded to Ready to Learn Providence. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.