Saturday, February 23, 2013

For vocabulary, input volume matters

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 early-learning experts.

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!
Throughout 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
The 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.

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