We have a long history of research that tells us that children who enter Kindergarten behind their peers in language skills, particularly vocabulary skills, will be at a great educational disadvantage and often will not catch up for many years, if at all. This is still another indicator that “We can’t wait” until 3rd grade to decide that children are behind and need to catch up.

 One of the first studies on the “achievement gap” that I read has had a great influence on my work and teaching of courses in “Language and Learning” and “Reading Comprehension”. In 1976 NCTE published a monograph titled Language Development, Kindergarten through Grade Twelve by Walter Loban. Loban reported on a study where Loban (and his team) followed a group of 211 students who differed in sex, ethnic background, socioeconomic status and spread of intellectual abilities. Data were provided on 3 subgroups of children described as high functioning, low functioning, and mixed (high and low functioning) based on a range of listening, speaking, reading and writing measures along with teacher ratings every year of the amount of language, quality of vocabulary, skill in communication, organization, purpose and control of language, wealth of ideas, and quality of listening. Loban’s most telling finding was that “those superior in oral language in kindergarten and grade one before they learned to read and write are the very ones who excel in reading and writing by the time they are in grade six.

 A second influential group of studies looked at vocabulary specifically and the differences in achievement, even at the preschool level.

The Hart and Risley Study (The Matthew Effect)


The Thirty Million Word Gap

“In this groundbreaking study, Betty Hart and Todd Risley entered the homes of 42 families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between a parent and child shape language and vocabulary development. Their findings were unprecedented, with extraordinary disparities between the sheer number of words spoken as well as the types of messages conveyed. After four years these differences in parent-child interactions produced significant discrepancies in not only children’s knowledge, but also their skills and experiences with children from high-income families being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. Follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life.”

See other resources from the Rice center for education: the OWL Lab in Action (Videos) (Oral and Written Language Laboratory for preK students)


What the Research Tells Us about Vocabulary Instruction in Early Childhood

by Tanya Christ and X Cristine Yang

Reprinted from Young Children • July 2010

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“It is important for children to develop knowledge of words’ meanings from a young age because vocabulary development has

an impact on their reading comprehension and academic success as they get older (Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin 1990). Put simply, when children do not understand the meanings of important words in a text, they are unlikely to understand the text.…..

….Hart and Risley (1995) studied young children’s vocabulary development and found that when children from families

with low incomes were 3 years old, they knew 600 fewer words than children the same age from families with upper

incomes. By grade 2, the gap widens to about 4,000 words (Biemiller & Slonim2001).…..

 This review identifies effective ways for teachers to help young children learn new word meanings. First, we discuss

factors that affect young children’s vocabulary development. Then, we present four research-based vocabulary

teaching practices for early childhood classrooms: providing purposeful exposure to new vocabulary, intentionally

teaching word meanings, teaching word learning strategies, and giving children opportunities to use newly learned words. We conclude by offering classroom tips on vocabulary instruction based on our review of the research.”

 Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find By Bjorn Carey

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/september/toddler-language-gap-091213.html Research by Stanford psychologists reveals that 2-year-old children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in language development. Future work aims to devise intervention methods.

Starting Early to Close the Achievement Gap by the Ounce of Prevent Fund http://www.ieanea.org/region/40/assets/closingtheachievementgap.pdf

It isn’t just poverty that creates a vocabulary/achievement gap, it is also the ability to read words, especially “complex text” based words. When children start with an oral vocabulary gap, learning just gets more difficult when they cannot add words to their vocabulary because of reading difficulties.

So, we need to ask who is having difficulty reading words, why, and what kind of words and why?….Who: ELL student, students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, students in classrooms that don’t meet their needs.

The questions of what kinds of words and why will be addressed in Parts 3 and 4 of this Vocabulary series.