Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Children’s vocabulary is a key ingredient of learning to read with comprehension, but recent research finds limited instruction in vocabulary in kindergarten – and too little to enable children with small vocabularies to close the vocabulary gap that is evident long before they begin school.

Susan B. Neuman, a professor in educational studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Tanya S. Wright, an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, analyzed observations of 55 kindergarten teachers’ instruction in a variety of school districts. They found limited instruction in vocabulary in most settings, but low-income children were least likely to be taught the kind of sophisticated, academic words that will help them succeed in school

“Vocabulary is a deceptively simple literacy skill that researchers and educators agree is critical to students’ academic success, but which has proved frustratingly difficult to address,” Education Week reports.  “By age 3, when many children enter early preschool, youngsters from well-to-do families have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, compared to 749 words for children in working-class families and 525 words for children on welfare, according to a seminal 2003 longitudinal study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, authors of the 1995 book ‘Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.’

“The consensus among researchers and educators has been that students must close such vocabulary gaps to succeed academically and deal with rigorous content. ‘It’s been one of the most resistant-to-change skills in early literacy,’ Ms. Neuman said. ‘Generally, children come into school with vocabulary at one point and leave with vocabulary at the same point…. We’re not teaching very many words, and we’re not teaching in a way that children will retain the words.’”

Much of the vocabulary instruction Neuman and Wright observed came in isolated “teachable moments,” such as pointing out the meaning of words in books read aloud. The number of words to which children were exposed varied widely, they noted. The researchers also found little effort to reinforce the learning and place words in a broader context, all of which is necessary for children to integrate new words into their vocabulary.

“A student hears the word ‘transportation’ in a book about trains,” another expert — Rebecca Silverman, an assistant professor in special education at the University of Maryland — tells Ed Week. “If the teacher doesn’t explain it in a general context, the student might not get the full sense of the word, and might think it’s just related to trains.”

Wright and Neuman note that earlier studies find students must hear a new word an average of 28 times in order to remember it. “The more sophisticated the word, the more important it is for students to have opportunities to recall the word, use it, and understand how it relates to other, similar words,” Ed Week reports.

In a related study —  “Vocabulary Instruction in Commonly Used Kindergarten Core Reading Curricula” — Neuman and Wright analyzed  curricula from four widely used reading programs and found they introduced only eight to ten new words each week, and most of the new words were common, easy words. “Essentially, what we found was a very haphazard approach to vocabulary instruction,” Neuman told Ed Week. “The ‘challenging’ vocabulary choices were not based on frequency, not based on the supporting academic words children need to know like ‘during’ and ‘after,’ not content-rich words, like ‘predict.’”