Technology Holds Promise for Students With Poor Vocabulary Skills

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In 1995, the researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published the results of their groundbreaking study that found 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their age-mates from professional families. This difference has been called “the 30-million-word gap.”

One reason their work has been so influential is that it helped quantify the challenge education systems face when children enter school with vast differences in educational readiness. The question is: What have we learned since then? Twenty years later, why are so many learners in our schools still struggling? The simple answer is that there’s much more to it than a vocabulary deficit.


Research from programs funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has shown that kindergarten assessments can accurately predict greater than 90 percent of struggling 3rd grade readers. So, if we can accurately predict in kindergarten who’s at risk, what are we doing in the time between kindergarten and 3rd grade?

Language and, later, reading experience are two of the largest contributors to plasticity in the developing brain. They are also large contributors to the way we build our cognitive skills, as well as the brain’s reward systems that play a role in our communication patterns.

As illustrated in the Hart and Risley study, language for many impoverished children is used more often to communicate negation, disapproval, or punishment. In families in economic distress, the average child heard about one encouragement to every two discouragements. In contrast, the average child from a professional family heard six times the number of encouragements for using language for every one discouragement. This creates a complex relationship between differences in the quality, context, and quantity of words spoken.

“For an impoverished child, language is a way to be punished, twice as often as it is to receive positive reinforcement or praise.”

Think about that for a moment. For an impoverished child, language is a way to be punished, twice as often as it is to receive positive reinforcement or praise. So, that child is struggling with much more than a 30-million-word difference. If a child has had language used twice as often to put him or her down, that child is not going to be excited about talking or using language at all. Imagine the teacher’s challenge for reaching and educating the language-impoverished student.

Encouraging talking, however, is vital to building cognitive skills. The more we talk, the longer the memory span becomes, and the better our attention and our processing skills get. If we’re not practicing these skills, they won’t be well developed when we arrive at school. In a classroom of 20-plus students, a kindergarten teacher doesn’t always have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with children who are a year or more behind when they start the school year.

Moreover, it’s not just the gap in vocabulary at age 4 that puts these children at risk. As Hart and Risley pointed out, it’s the fact that this gap actually increases over time—even after the children are in school. Why? One reason is that children with lower vocabulary skills are often poor readers, so they continue to fall further and further behind in academic language and cognitive skills. A great deal of academic learning occurs during independent reading after 3rd grade. If a student can’t read or can’t read very well, he or she will continuously fall further behind. As schools try to maximize the learning that occurs each day, that gap becomes wider and wider.

From a practical standpoint, we can’t solve the 30-million-word gap simply by re-creating the missing vocabulary development. These children aren’t just 30-million words behind; the rate at which they acquire and use words is also behind. If 30 million words equates to X number of hours of experience, we’re never going to get those children up to speed, because their peers are not going to slow down. Their peers are not just ahead; they are actually running faster in vocabulary and reading development, which means that the gap will continue to grow.

Despite that fact, schools are still trying to solve this problem in a very linear fashion. Many states, for example, recommend that if a child is behind in reading, the school should give him or her an extra 30 minutes of reading a day.

There are two problems with that approach. First, there’s an opportunity cost, because something else is being pushed out of that 30-minute period.

“The achievement gap can be bridged, but we have to be more strategic about how we present the information to struggling learners.”

Second, we’re not changing the rate at which the student acquires new information. While that 30 minutes may help—it’s better than nothing, right?—the child is probably never going to catch up. And that’s why so few struggling readers ever do.

It’s not a matter of effort. The answer isn’t that students and teachers need to work harder. The answer is that we need to work smarter.

The achievement gap can be bridged, but we have to be more strategic about how we present the information to struggling learners. We have to look for ways to make them faster at acquiring vocabulary. Otherwise, they will continue to fall behind.

Technology is one solution. With research-based software programs used in schools and homes, we can create student-driven learning experiences that surpass those of a normal classroom or small-group environment. These programs deliver individualized instruction to allow children to fill in learning gaps at their own pace. Students know the technology will meet them at their level, wherever that may be, and provide the encouragement they need. This differentiated approach over a short duration can help children become faster learners by specifically addressing weaknesses—and providing opportunities for success.

Students also need interventions that target the root cause of their language and reading difficulties, rather than accommodations or more of the same interventions that haven’t helped in the past. Students need to work from the bottom up and build foundational cognitive skills, such as memory, attention, processing, and sequencing, to remediate the underlying difficulties that have stalled their progress. With this approach, students can make rapid gains in their reading and language skills. Once these foundational skills are improved, they become second nature. As a result, students continue to make progress long after they have completed the intervention.

Students also need positive experiences with language and reading, in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. Using speech-recognition software, for example, students receive one-on-one guidance and real-time feedback from an unbiased listener as they read aloud. Using this approach, students can improve their reading grade level by up to 50 percent more than the students who only receive classroom instruction in the same time period.

With the right technology, struggling students can gain not only more word experiences per unit of time than they can from traditional instruction; they can also gain the right word experiences to prevent them from falling behind, giving them a real shot at excelling and achieving their potential.

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