Monday, January 10, 2011

Vocabulary Development is Key to Learning

The human sense of hearing begins to function two months prior to birth in a full-term baby. During those last eight weeks, fetuses are learning the essential sounds of the local language into which they will soon be born. All human competencies become fine-tuned following birth depending on the richness of the environmental in which they find themselves. Following delivery, infants begin a quest to perfect their language abilities based on the supportive verbal interactions that newborns and infants with their primary caregivers.

While reading to children is considered indispensable in language development, it is the supplementary verbal give-and-take (the questions, comments, related prior experiences, etc.) taking place during the informal sidebar conversations that are as important as the reading itself. Hart and Risley’s research on language development found that from ages zero to 3, children are dependent upon their immediate families for developmental experiences, including language.

When tests of language fluency are administered during second and third grade, those exams are better reflections of (1) the richness in the vocabulary a child hears in the first three years of his/her life, and (2) the quality and quantity of language interactions that have taken place with and around him/her, than anything the schools may have achieved during formal language instruction. According to science writer Ron Kotulak, the average number of words spoken daily in professional, middle-class and low-income homes are as follows:

• A professional household = 1500-2500 words
a total of 3.5 million words heard by age 3
• A middle-class household = 1000-1500 words
a total of 2.0 million words heard by age 3
• A welfare-recipient’s household = 500-800 words
a total of 1 million words heard by age 3

What is the most reliable predictor of vocabulary development and reading comprehension for children in 3rd grade? His/her verbal abilities at age three. What is the most accurate means of forecasting 11th grade reading scores? Merely using a teenager’s 3rd grade reading and language test scores.

The academic challenges facing children with limited vocabularies are compounded over time. These children are correspondingly limited in their ability to think, due to a limited database from which to select words needed for speaking, thinking, listening, understanding, reading, and writing with accuracy. Although it is often said that we use words primarily for interpersonal communications, according to Stahl’s research, “Words are used to think. The more words we know, the finer our understanding of the world.”

A robust “vocabulary tool chest,” or conversely, an extraordinarily barren one, will determine the language to which that child has access for interpreting a concept, discussing an experience, or writing about an event. His/her recollection of any of these experiences is largely dependent on the development of linguistic precision.

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