Early Childhood

Early Years

May 30, 2001 1 min read

Vocabulary’s Key Role

Preschool children who live in poverty and are not developing their vocabularies are at a significant risk of struggling academically throughout elementary and middle school, according to a recently released study.

The good news, the study found, is that specific reading instruction for preschoolers—such as letter, sound, and word recognition—can help close the learning gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers, suggests George Farkas, a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. He is a co-author of the study, “Family Linguistic Culture and Social Reproduction: Verbal Skill From Parent to Child in the Preschool and School Years.”

Mr. Farkas and Kurt J. Beron, an associate professor of social science at the University of Texas at Dallas, found that by the time most children enter 1st grade, their vocabularies are growing at roughly the same pace. It’s during the early years—before 1st grade— that “social-class differences widen,” they say.

Between 1986 and 1996, the researchers collected data on the vocabulary skills of about 7,000 children, ages 3 to 14.

“By analyzing these data according to the child’s month of age, beginning at 36 months, we were able to examine the trajectory of oral- vocabulary growth by social class in unprecedented detail,” Mr. Farkas said in a statement released with the study.

The researchers also conducted interviews of mothers and gave them academic-skills tests. Among other findings, those interviews and tests revealed that even if a mother had a good vocabulary, her child would not benefit unless she also took steps such as talking out loud to the child and reading to him or her regularly.

To obtain a copy of the study, call the Penn State department of public information at (814) 865-9481.


Preparing for School

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, based in Battle Creek, Mich., has launched a project to help children who are likely to be at risk of academic failure become better prepared for school.

The goal of SPARK—or Supporting Partnerships To Assure Ready Kids—is to create “a seamless transition into school for vulnerable children ages 3 to 6 in select demonstration communities.”

More information about SPARK is avaiable from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

—Linda Jacobson

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week

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