Many young children struggle with speaking full sentences, and this is a big problem – because the importance of spoken vocabulary in a child’s education cannot be overstated.
Of all the endless statistics and figures swirling around children’s education, one in particular always hits home with a hammer thud. And it is this:
By the time they are just 3 years old, children from low income families will already have heard roughly 30 million less words than their middle-class counterparts.
That’s right. Not ten. Not 20. Thirty million words. Unsurprisingly, many of these kids aren’t the most confident speakers.
We are currently living in two Americas. In the first one, children from middle-class homes turn up for their first day of school already equipped to succeed.
Behind them at home is a bumper collection of good books, countless bedtime story sessions and – crucially – lots and lots of talking time with their parents.
This really counts. From infancy, children are like little sponges, soaking up all the words you can throw at them. Slowly but surely, their vocabulary grows.
Now compare the above scenario with low-income areas, where there is an average of just 1 book for every 300 children.
Add to this a far greater likelihood of single-parent households, where the adult holds down multiple jobs. Inevitably, there will be far less one-on-one time with the young ones.
Suddenly, you begin to see where those 30 million words have disappeared to.
Primed to fail
The result of such hardship is wearily predictable.
Many children from low-income families step through the school gates for the first time already way behind their peers.
And with no realistic chance of things changing for the better, they’re set up to fail before they’ve even begun.
It must be incredibly frustrating to sit in a classroom for the first time and not be able to find the words to express what you mean. And even more frustrating, surely, to see that other children can find the words.
Organizations such as Book Trust try to help these kids. We encourage children to fall in love with reading and pick up basic literacy skills.
By empowering them to choose and buy their own books, we give them a fighting chance with their education.
But while learning to read and write is vitally important, learning how to speak is also a critical skill.
And there’s an obvious trick that is often missed in schools where vocabulary is an issue – making sure young students speak in complete sentences.
Alan Cohen, an early education specialist from Dallas, is spearheading a campaign to improve literacy in local schools by getting young students to express themselves in full sentences.
As he puts it: “If a teacher says, ‘What color is this?’ and holds up a red pen, and a child just says ‘Red,’ they’ve heard one word.
“[But] if the child says ‘The color of that pen is red,’ well, then they have heard multiple words.”
By following this model (and insisting that the kids play ball), Cohen has found success: Children in his schools are now hearing hundreds, maybe even thousands more words every day.
And the improvements have often been remarkable. Some 4- and 5-year-olds, who previously weren’t able to even finish a thought out loud, are now confidently reeling off sentences with up to eight words.
That’s because speaking – like reading, swimming or riding a bike – is a learned skill.
And if kids are encouraged to put their speaking skills into practice, they’ll soon be able to eloquently pronounce this wonderful sentence: ‘I am a successful student’.
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