A couple of weeks ago, NPR ran a story on the “word gap”. The difference in words children from poor families hear by the time they are 3 years old and the words children from affluent families hear during their first 3 years. This difference is 30 million words.
As stunning as that figure is on its own, the type of language is even more stunning. In the lower-income families that were studied, the words were shorter, simpler, and more directive; “Do this, don’t do that.” The more affluent families demonstrated longer, richer, and more conversational language.
A recent study out of Stanford University shows that the word gap is significant even by the time the children are 18 months of age. This provides solid proof that we must start working with children and their language skills very, very early. And, we must encourage parents to do the same. Perhaps we can provide training for our staff and invite parents to join us to learn the same techniques.
We spoke a few weeks ago about the power of dialogic reading (basically, having a dialogue with the child) to help extend children’s vocabularies and comprehension during story time. Along with that, we need to make sure that our conversations with children, whenever possible, are actual conversations; dialogic rather than one-sided. As a child is drawing a picture, rather than saying, “What a pretty flower you drew”, we can of course, start with the open-ended “Tell me about your picture”. Then, take it a step or two further. “Where have you seen a flower like that?” “Have you seen that kind of flower in any different colors?” “How does that flower smell?” etc, etc, etc. For other ideas about extending conversations, you can check out last year’s blog on vocabulary building.