Monday, July 13, 2009

Mind the [Language] Gap: We’re Leaving Children Behind Before They Start

In 2002 the U. S. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated that schools eliminate the achievement gap between the social classes and between minority groups and whites. While there is much that schools can do to close the achievement gap, environmental factors such as early childhood exposure to language in general, and reading in particular, play a huge role in determining academic success and failure.

According to Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, intensive early childhood education raises the I.Q. of children and provides long-term benefits (2009). His research has found that the widely held view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited may well be wrong. This would not surprise many teachers, who I doubt would be able to find the motivation to get out of bed if they didn’t believe that intelligence is malleable. It also won’t surprise the parent who makes it a point to read stories to their children and teach them their letters and numbers.

I have heard of autistic persons who think in colors and others whose thoughts are melodic. But for most of us our thoughts are tied to language. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” If you can’t name it or express it in words, you can’t really know it. Fifth graders are pretty good at discerning the meaning of words by using context clues, but have a hard time with questions that involve making inferences. Sixth graders, with their increased vocabulary and deeper understanding of language begin making inferences with ease. As their facility with language increases, they learn, and their world expands.

Todd Risley and Betty Hart found that by five years of age a child from an impoverished-language environment will have heard some 30 million fewer words spoken to them than an average middle class child (2005). Another study, conducted in three communities in Los Angeles by C. Smith, R. Constantino, and S. Krashen, found that in the most underprivileged community, there were no children’s books found in the home. In the low-to-middle-income homes there were an average of three books. In the affluent community there were around 200 children’s books (1997). No books and 30 million fewer words puts a child at quite a disadvantage.

Andrew Biemiller, a Canadian psychologist, found that children who enter kindergarten at the twenty-fifth percentile of vocabulary are not only behind from the start, but remain behind for years to come. By sixth grade they are three grade levels behind average readers and even further behind those whose vocabulary was at or above the seventy-fifth percentile when they entered kindergarten. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Luckily, as Nisbett points out, early intervention programs work and have lasting effects.

I have found that the biggest deficit that my students have is in vocabulary. They are bright and inquisitive and eager to learn. Many of them are former ELLs and come from lower-income families. Their English language development may lag behind some native speakers, but their families’ strong emphasis on education and their own desire to learn have allowed them to be the lucky exceptions and make significant gains.


Biemiller, A. (1999). Language and reading success. Brookline, MA: Brookline

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (2003) The early catastrophe. American Educator, 27(4), 8-9

Nisbett, R. (2009) Intelligence and how to get it. New York: W.W. Norton

Smith, C., Constantino, R., Krashen, S. (1997). Differences in print environment for children in Beverly Hills, Compton, and Watts. Emergency Librarian, 24(4), 8-9

Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Translated by D. Pears and B. McGuinness (1961). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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