Thursday, July 30, 2015

The 30 Million Word Gap: The Importance of Monitoring Progress

In the last post on July 23rd, I ended the piece by saying:

“Despite that fact that age related sequences are not completely mapped out for all domains of oral language, we should use the knowledge we do have to monitor whether or not children are mastering oral language skills at a pace that will allow them to become successful learners, thinkers and readers.  We want them to be “ready for school,” but we also want them to continue to be successful throughout their school years.”

Here are some additional links mapping out developmental sequences for the 4 levels of language:

Sentences: Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek

Looking at Words in More Depth

A Word Gap

The research literature tells us that some children will have a 30 million word gap by the time they are 3.  We learn from an article in Education Week about research by Hart and Risley (Meaningful Differences) who studied children of different backgrounds as they developed vocabulary from 7 months to 3 years.

The researchers found that, on average, children from professional families heard more than 2,150 words an hour. Those in working-class families heard about 1,250 words. Children in families on welfare heard little more than 600 words an hour.……

The hourly estimates from those original 42 families were extrapolated to predict that by age 3, children of professionals would hear about 45 million words, compared with only 13 million for a child in poverty—the source of the 30 million-word gap…

We know from subsequent research that this gap (The Achievement Gap) continues to exist.  We need to know why, to what extent, and what we can do about it.

A deeper look at the developmental sequence for words.

In their book, “How Babies Talk,” Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek trace “vocabulary” development from 8 to 12 to 24 months.  They describe children who said their first “real” words: at 12 months (Priscilla), at 18 months (Edgar), and at 17.5 months (Michael).  They include details about “first” word appearance for each of these children, including the information that Michael “had one continuous ear infection from 9 to 13 months” and Priscilla “is the firstborn child of two English professors.”  Knowing context matters when time frames are used to suggest what is “normal” development.

They define “real” words as having four characteristics: (pp 93-94)

1 The same word is used consistently to signal the same meaning.

2 The word the baby uses approximates the sound of the conventional word used by the family.

3 The word is spoken with the intention to communicate and not just as something the baby is immediately imitating.

4 The word is used in a variety of settings to name items of the same type that the child had not heard anyone name before.

The next big benchmark in word/vocabulary learning is the “vocabulary spurt.” 

“Some time after toddlers have learned about 50 words, around 19 to 21 months on average, the entire character of word learning changes….) (p. 115) 

                During the last half of the second year toddlers often experience an explosive period of vocabulary growth, including words their parents would wish they didn’t have. The rate has been estimated at nine new words a day, 63 new words per week….”

                The authors continue… “In this chapter we examine the “vocabulary spurt” or the “naming explosions.” What are toddlers doing at this time?  What kinds of words are they saying?  How are they saying them? ….What is going on behind the scenes that allow the vocabulary spurt to occur?....Finally, the chapter concludes with a discussion of toddlers who reach the vocabulary spurt more slowly than their peers.  We focus on red flags in early language learning and look at populations of toddlers who approach word learning in a less standard way.” (p. 116)

How do we/can we monitor growth in word/vocabulary development?

Hoffman, Teale and Paciga suggest that we need to go beyond just counting words.

Assessing Vocabulary in  the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 2014, Vol. 14(4) 459–481


“There is widespread agreement with in the field of early childhood education that vocabulary is important to literacy achievement and that reading aloud can support vocabulary growth. However, there are unexplored and significant problems with the ways we assess young children’s vocabulary learning from read-alouds. This paper critically reviews the forms of vocabulary assessment commonly used with young children, examining the benefits and drawbacks of each. This review found: (a) general vocabulary measures are not practical, meaningful measures for vocabulary learning of specific words from books read aloud, (b) researcher-developed measures for specific words from books read aloud that mimic normed general vocabulary measures include serious threats to validity and reliability, and (c) other forms of measurement, such as soliciting definitions from children, are difficult to score reliably. This critical review of existing vocabulary assessments of word learning from read-alouds concludes that researchers and practitioners should carefully consider their needs for assessment data so as to choose, design and balance the uses of assessments to meet their needs for meaningful, reliable data.”

In their conclusion, they say:

….“By choosing, designing and balancing uses of assessments to meet various needs for information, researchers and practitioners can best capitalize on the strengths of each form of assessment to inform instructional design and ultimately improve student  learning.”….

Why is monitoring so important and how we do it?

*To eliminate the 30 million word gap

*To assess the effectiveness of our “developmentally appropriate” practice

*To plan instruction and timely intervention

As a starting point, let me highlight several “core considerations in developmentally appropriate practice” as advocated in the 2009 position paper of the NAEYC.  Although all of the considerations are important, I am highlighting those that seem especially relevant to helping children develop the oral language skills they need to be successful learners, thinkers, and readers.  These guidelines suggest what we need to pay attention to, when, and how.

 Beginning with 3 areas of knowledge to consider in making decisions:

1 What is known about child development and learning—referring to knowledge of age-related characteristics that permits general predictions about what experiences are likely to best promote children’s learning and development.

2 What is known about each child as an individual—referring to what practitioners learn about each child that has implication for how best to adapt and be responsive to that individual variation.

3 What is known about the social and cultural contexts in which children live…?


In addition, we note the 12 “Principles of child development and learning that inform practices” and highlight several that are relevant to monitoring progress in oral language development:

2.  Many aspects of children’s learning and development follow well documented sequences with later abilities, skills, and knowledge building on those already acquired.

3 Development and learning proceed at varying rates from child to child, as well as at uneven rates cross different areas of a child’s individual development.

4 Development and learning results from a dynamic and continuous interaction of biological maturation and experience.

5 Early experiences have profound effects, both cumulative and delayed, on a child’s development and learning and optimal periods exist for certain types of development and learning to occur.

6 Development proceeds toward greater complexity, self-regulation, and symbolic or representational capacities.

8 Development and learning occur in and are influenced by multiple social and cultural contexts

9 Always mentally active in seeking to understand the world around them, children learn in a variety of ways; a wide range of teaching strategies and interactions are effective in supporting all these kinds of learning.

10 Play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation as well as for promoting language, cognition, and social competence.

11 Development and learning advance when children are challenged to achieve at a level just beyond their current mastery, and also when they have many opportunities to practice newly acquired skills.


Other questions about monitoring:

What tools are there for monitoring language development across all 4 levels—sounds, words, sentences, discourse?

How often should we monitor progress?

How do we use those tools?

What do we do with the information we gain from monitoring?


For additional information and links on “word” development, see Oral Language: Words (Part 1 of 5)







Monday, July 27, 2015

Oral Language in Literacy Development

The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development

From Language Magazine    July 2015

Timothy Shanahan and Christopher Lonigan explore the connection between early oral language development and later reading comprehension success

Some short excerpts, but I encourage you to read the whole (4 page) article.

“Supporting young children’s language and literacy development has long been considered a practice that yields strong readers and writers later in life. The results of the National Early Literacy Panel’s (NELP) six years of scientific research synthesis supports the practice and its role in language development among children ages zero to five.

The NELP was brought together in 2002 to compile research that would contribute to educational policy and practice decisions that impact early literacy development. It was also charged with determining how teachers and families could support young children’s language and literacy development. Outcomes found in the panel’s report (2008) would be used in the creation of literacy-specific materials for parents, teachers, and staff development for early childhood educators and family-literacy practitioners.”


“High-level language skills used to create mental models of text are not exclusive to reading. In fact, children begin developing these language skills well before formal reading instruction in a range of language comprehension situations. For example, young children rely on knowledge of narrative structure to do things like follow a set of instructions, share their daily activities around the dinner table, or understand spoken stories, cartoons, and movies.”


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Development: What Does That Mean?

Oftentimes the word “development” is used in relationship to children’s growth in several domains: physical development, social/emotional development, language development, and cognitive development.

In education and the educational literature, we also see references to a “developmental approach” or “developmentally appropriate practice.” (See, for example:

Before we continue to talk about oral language “development,” we need to address some issues with the concept of development:

A.      Is language “development” due to nature or nurture?

B.      Is there a developmental progression for all domains of language growth?

C.      Are there accepted ages ranges for particular areas of development?  Should we be concerned about the child’s “rate or pace” of development if they are outside of those ranges, specifically in the areas of oral language and in the relationship of oral language to literacy?

(A) Nature or nurture?

My position:  Language Development is determined by both nature and nurture.

Here are some sources that propose or suggest that it is both: nature and nurture:

*How Babies Talk, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, 1999
So, is it [oral language development] nature or is it nurture?  This question fuels a debate that has lasted for centuries, a debate that affects our roles as parents, teachers, and caregivers.  If language is inborn, then we can stand back and watch the miracle unfold.  If, on the other hand, we teach language, we must be active partners in our children’s language growth.  All of us need to know because children’s language abilities are intimately related to many aspects of intellectual growth.

Those in the field of language development are finally in a position to answer some of these age old questions.  There has been a revolution within the study of language development in recent years.  New methods can evaluate the language capabilities of the fetus (yea, the fetus!} and newborn.  We can now see up close what newborns bring to the task of language learning (nature).  New methods also permit an even clearer view of the ways in which parents’ teaching affects their children.  It turns out that nature and nurture are involved in an intricate dance with each other….”  Pp. 3-4.

*Language Development, Erika Hoff, 2005  “Communicative Interaction As a Contributor to the Process of Language Development
“Even if the communicative function of language does not explain how language is acquired, communicative interaction is clearly the setting which children hear language input.  And, it turns out, properties of the communicative interaction children experience affect their linguistic and communicative development….´ P 96. 

*The Achievement Gap and “Ready to Learn”
There is a vast literature that suggests that some children arrive at kindergarten not as ‘ready to learn” as other children.  One of the principal domains of growth that is highlighted in the differences in “readiness” is language.  Some children, for example, have a far less extensive and sophisticated vocabulary than other children.  Some children are not as proficient in communicating as other children; some children seem to know less about sound/symbol relationships.  See, for example:

“Positive early language and literacy development can give children a window to the world, helping to ensure that each child can seize his or her potential for future success. During the first 3 years of life, the brain undergoes its most dramatic development and children acquire the ability to think, speak, learn, and reason. When this early development is not nurtured, the brain’s architecture is affected and young children begin to fall behind. Many low-income children arrive at school already behind in communication and language, a disadvantage that only persists over time….”
Dr. Lesley Morrow - Literacy Development Rutgers University,  4 MinuteVideo

Dr. Morrow, a renowned expert on early literature talks about early literacy before school, the role that parents and preschool teachers play, and the importance of language.


(B) Developmental Progression in all oral language domains?

My Position: Yes, but… and…Some domains are mapped out completely. All domains of language development  are not easily or completely mapped out sequentially, particularly during the preschool years. And all children do not follow the sequences that are mapped out at the “suggested” ages. Why is that?  What difference does it make?

To some extent my answer is based on a distinction made by Hoffman,Paciga, and Teale
Constrained and unconstrained skills

“In discussing the Common Core State Standards, the authors point out that some Literacy standards (“Foundational Skills” which they call “constrained” skills) are relatively easily conceptualized in terms of component parts that follow a fairly linear trajectory.  …. “(p. 8)
“However for other components of literacy development—language acquisition, vocabulary, text comprehension, and written composition—measurement is much less straight forward.  Theses aspects of early ELA learning continue to develop throughout life, thus having no measureable point of mastery (we never stop learning vocabulary, for example…  Second, they are considerably more complex to acquire than the foundational standards…..”  (p. 10)

Furthermore, attainment of such constrained skills are easier to measure.  “There already exist several valid, reliable measures of foundational skills such as concepts of print, phonological awareness, and phonics appropriate for preschool and kindergarten.  In addition, for teachers, the data from these measures tend to be reasonably straightforward to gather and interpret, and teachers can fairly readily learn how to use the information from these measures to differentiation instruction for young children….” (p. 10)

 The Task and Context Matter
Another perspective on why all “developmental” skill sequences are not mapped out completely is offered by Daniel T. Willingham (professor of cognitive psychology at UV) in an article titled:  What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice.  (American Educator, summer, 2008)

Although he is talking about cognitive development, I think his ideas are relevant.  He maintains that “Children’s Cognitive Abilities Vary by Task and Day, Not Just by Age and Individual Developmental Pace.” (p. 37)   His position address issues of ongoing assessment and pedagogy.  He asks:  “What Does This Variability Mean for Teachers?”  His answers:

1 Use information about (conceptual) principles but not in the absolute.
2 Think about the effectiveness of tasks.
3 Think about why students do not understand
4 Recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate.


(C) Accepted Age Ranges and Concerns About Pace or Rate of Development
My Position:  Yes, there are age ranges mapped out for some aspects of language development, but not for all of them.  We need to understand why some children are not keeping “pace” for those “developmental” language skills that are mapped out.  And we need to find ways to monitor progress for those language skills that are not as clearly sequenced.

Sounds.  We have fairly good age range markers for a child’s ability to recognize and produce the sounds of our language. We have fairly good age range markers for a child’s phonemic awareness skills.

Sentences:  We have fairly good age range markers for some aspects of sentences:  sentence length and syntax are examples.

Words.  Words/vocabulary is a more complex skill (unconstrained).  We continue to learn words, word meanings, word relations, and about words throughout our lives.   We do have important norms for how many words different groups of children “know” in the 0-5 range.

Discourse.  We know when children begin to “communicate” with others and something about what and how they communicate in the 0 to 5 range.  But this is such a wide and deep skill that we shave much more to learn.  We continue to learn how to communicate throughout our lives.

Despite that fact that age related sequences are not completely mapped out for all domains of oral language, we should use the knowledge we do have to monitor whether or not children are mastering oral language skills at a pace that will allow them to become successful learners, readers, and thinkers.  We want them to be “ready for school,” but we also want them to continue to be successful throughout their school years.















Monday, July 20, 2015

Oral Language Matters

A couple of short video links worth watching.

Podcast: School Success Starts in Infancy

By Julie Weatherston | Published: March 12, 2012  (5 minutes)
In this show Dr. Lally talks about why we should take a closer look at supporting infants if we want our children to succeed in school. Dr. Lally discusses the critical period of early brain development before a child reaches three years of age and why early support for all babies makes more economic sense than later compensatory measures.


Oral Language and Learning to Read

Kids who hear more words spoken at home learn more words and enter school with better vocabularies. This larger vocabulary pays off exponentially as a child progresses through school. It’s never too soon to start talking to a baby — describing out loud everything that's going on around you. It's also important to listen and respond to what young children are communicating.

Featured partner: National Association for the Education of Young Children      Video: 6 MinutesOral Language





Thursday, July 16, 2015

Language Development: What is it and why is it important?

Oral language, for most learners, is an optimal tool for learning.  It doesn’t require special materials or tasks or situations or contexts.  It is possible to use language to learn anywhere, at any time, with anyone.  And, although we begin using language very early (at birth), we can continue to grow in our language skills and our ability to use language to learn throughout our lives.

Oral language plays such an important part in school success!  It is essential that we help children/students develop the oral language skills they will need to become readers, thinkers, and learners.  We cannot afford to allow children/students to “fail” and be held back in school—and in life.
What is Oral Language?

What is there to learn about oral language?  Here are some frameworks.

How Babies Talk
Golfinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek 1999
Language Development
Hoff (2009)
Helping Young
Children Learn Language & Literacy, Vukelich, Christie, and Enz (2008)
Oral Language and Early Literacy in Preschool, Roskos, Tabors, Lenhart
Speaking and Listening for Preschool thru 3rd Grade, Resnick and Snow (2008)
Uses of Language


Oral Language Development

Within each of these frameworks, there are several things to learn and there is a course of development, beginning at birth.  Some dimensions of language (phonology, for example) are mastered at a fairly young age.  The “average” child, for example, recognizes and can produce all of the sounds of his/her language by age 6 or 7.  Basic syntax skills are also learned fairly early.  Children, for example, begin putting words together as young as 18 months/24 months; and they have mastered the basics of syntax by 6 or 7.  Appropriate use of conjunctions, however, continues throughout the school years. 

Morphology also begins developing at an early age: children, for example, start adding endings to some words, as preschoolers. But children are still learning about dividing words into parts and learning about derivations and affixes into high school.

Lexicon and word meanings, however, continue to develop throughout our adult years. Semantics addresses meaning at both the word and sentence levels. Understanding and speaking with clear and effective meaning is a life-long venture.

Mastering pragmatics is also a  life-long task.  That development begins in the first year or two and continues throughout our life span.

A More Detailed Outline of the Sequence of Language Development

In my “Dialogue About Language, Literacy, and Learning” Blog, I outline the sequence of oral language development using a

Sounds/Words/Sentences/Discourse framework.

 I start with posts on sounds (see links below) and then words, sentences, and discourse.  There are separate posts for each of those dimensions or levels of language.  I should note that there is too much information for each link to digest in one session.  I offer them here to make the links easier to find as I will be referring back to these links as I relate them to success in reading, thinking, and learning in preschool through elementary school, with a special emphasis on closing the achievement gap.





If we want children to succeed in school, we will need to begin to pay attention to the development of those oral language skills before they get to school.  In the next post, I’ll write about how we look at the progress that children are or are not making in their oral language development in the Zero to 5 age range.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Tentative "Table of Contents" for the T.A.L.K. Blog is a life-long adventure.  Children are learning to talk and learning about talk from the day they are born.  They are till learning about talking through their school years and into adulthood.

1 Language:  What is it and how does it develop?

*Defining Language

*Mapping the Developmental Course

* Monitoring Progress

2 Predicting the Course of Language/Literacy Development

*Thriving in Preschool

*Kindergarten Readiness

*The Achievement Gap

3 The Importance of Parents and Early Caregivers

*”Baby Talk”

*Reading and Conversing With Your Baby

*Early Caregivers and Kinds of Talking

4 What Is There to Learn?



*The Larger World

5 Language/Literacy Connections




6 Language Across Contexts

*The Language of Learning

*The Language of Thinking

*Domain Specific Language