A recent issue of Edweek has another lame article purporting to connect research to the Common Core--again, most of the "research" is incredibly weak and the experts say silly things. Nevertheless, the article does mention one classic piece of research, and looking back at that study leads, as usual, to the conclusion that reading volume matters a lot.
Unnecessary new research...
According to the first paragraph of the article:
Children who enter kindergarten with a small vocabulary don't get
taught enough words—
particularly, sophisticated academic words—to close
the gap, according to the latest in a
series of studies by Michigan
Well, duh. Anyone who had
looked carefully at the vocabulary research, or indeed simply thought
logically about the matter, would know that no scientific studies are
necessary to conclude that kids with small vocabularies can't possibly
be "taught" enough words to close the gap, since the only truly
significant way kids learn words is through reading them and hearing
them used. I have never yet read a study purporting to show that any
class of students, anywhere, has been "taught" enough words to make a
significant increase in their vocabularies. The main study discussed in
the article found limited vocabulary instruction across the board, and
less instruction in "academically challenging words" at
high-poverty-schools. Neither of these findings is necessarily
significant, because vocabulary instruction just doesn't make much of a difference.
...and humorless experts!
the article, ostensible experts are quoted saying silly things. For
instance, one scholar says that Kindergarteners should be taught
academic words like "predict." That might be reasonable, but then she
goes on, "Why would you choose to emphasize the word 'platypus'? It
makes no sense." Hm. What makes no sense to me is that someone who
can't imagine a reason to emphasize a really interesting, cool, loveable
word like "platypus" would have anything to do with children's
education, let alone be on the faculty at the University of Michigan.
What we should be thinking about
article spends a fair amount of space, and a cool decision tree sidebar
graphic, on which words to teach. Thinking a lot about this is probably
a waste of time, since teaching words doesn't make much of a
difference, except, perhaps, insofar as kids enjoy them. What then
should we be thinking about? Well, the only decent piece of research cited
by the article is the classic 1995 study by Hart and Risley that reveals
the remarkable disparities in the numbers of words heard by kids from
different socioeconomic backgrounds. Upper-middle class kids hear 11
million words per year, while poor kids hear 3 million; by the age of three, upper-middle class kids know twice as many words. The two "key conclusions" of the Hart and Risley study are the following:
• The most important aspect of children’s language experience is quantity.
The most important aspect to evaluate in child care settings for very
young children is the amount of talk actually going on, moment by
moment, between children and their caregivers.
These conclusions do NOT say that we should be spending our time deciding which words to "emphasize" or "prioritize" or teach; instead, what matters is how many words kids are hearing or reading. In fact, I see no reason not to transfer the second conclusion of the Hart and Risley study to schools of older children, too, with only slight modifications. As children get older, we need to add reading to our model, since as we get older reading is essential for experiencing high volumes of sophisticated language, and the quality of the input may become more important, since you do want them to hear or read words thast they don't actually know, but the quantity is still much more important than the Edweek article acknowledges. So I would extrapolate thus:
The most important aspect to evaluate in child-care settings for older
children (i.e., schools) is the amount of sophisticated language actually experienced by the children, whether from a caregiver (i.e. teacher) or by reading.
Of course, I suspect reading is probably more important than teacher-talk. The Hart and Risley study focused on talk among families, which is primarily one-on-one, and the best way to simulate that in a classroom with a student-teacher ratio of at least 20:1 is by having each child reading a book. So I'll conclude where I always do, with another form of my usual hypothesis:
The most important aspect to evaluate in child-care settings for older children (i.e., schools) is the amount of reading actually going on.