Effect of Early Childhood Literacy on Secondary Education

There has been an increasing interest in early childhood literacy throughout the last decade. Studies suggest that positive skills developed early in life greatly impact academic success in later years. Most researchers agree that ‘children should be active participants and be immersed in a wide range of interesting listening, talking, writing, and reading experiences’ (Santrock, 2013, pp 277). However, I posit that this is not enough. In order to truly impact a child’s language progression, vocabulary must be taught explicitly and directly.

Robust vocabulary development occurs from a focus that is not only content-centered but context-focused. Vygotsky’s early childhood theories purport that children acquire knowledge through social experiences, so it seems natural to extend ideas of language development to an acquisition that exists within a socio-cultural context. Thus, instead of engaging children in a ‘primary signal’ system (limited to decoding, phonics, and so on), adults should engage children in ‘a secondary signal system, in which words represent objects and ideas’. This provides for the cognitive development of ‘inner speech’, which is the link between knowledge acquisition and critical thinking for the individual (Vaazkz, 2012).

Vocabulary is not acquired for acquisition’s sake. Word knowledge is directly related to reading proficiency and overall school achievement. This correlation has a detrimental impact when paired with learning inequities, such as learning readiness or the disadvantages that stem from belonging to a particular socioeconomic group. In fact, first-grade children from higher-socioeconomic status (SES) groups knew about twice as many words as lower-SES children (Graves & Slater, 1987). High-performing high school seniors knew approximately four times as many words as their lower-performing classmates (Smith, 1941). And perhaps most strikingly: high-knowledge third graders had vocabularies about equal to lowest-performing 12th graders (Smith, 1941).

The fact that these large differences in vocabulary exist forces us to focus on how to remedy them. What can we as educators do to lesson this language-based achievement gap in our students? I believe the obvious answer would be to change the traditional approach of vocabulary acquisition and ensure that we are incorporating vocabulary words into our lesson planning in a way that provides repetition, relevancy, and representation for our students. To do this, we need to actively engage our students in the vocabulary development process.

Within the State of Virginia, all lesson planning begins with looking at the standards and identifying terms that are important to the content and lesson. The Framework for Instruction provides us with the vocabulary that is necessary to develop for each discipline. We need to avoid falling into the trap of utilizing textbook-provided terminology. If every educator utilized the same vocabulary and terminology from the Framework, students would be able to cohesively utilize those specific words as they moved through their academic career, scaffold their own learning, and make the critical connections that Vygotsky suggests are so necessary in developing critical thought processes.

We as educators should furthermore strive to explain target words to our students in a way that is student-friendly. We can teach them to utilize the words in real-world sentences. We can coach them through context-clue strategies that provide them the means to decipher and decode word meanings through individual investigation, which is needed and helpful for students interacting with self-selected readings. We can formatively determine their readiness by having them scan their notes, circle words, and focus the development on areas of weakness – this would work beautifully in a differentiated classroom.

Even with these student-centric approaches, we still need to relinquish further ownership of the process to students. Students can deconstruct the words, creating meanings or representations that are unique to their understanding. I believe this ties back to Vygotsky’s ideas of secondary-signals. Graphic organizers, visual notes, and peer mentoring all would aid in a deeper contextual understanding of terminology. This cognitive development could be further cemented through discussion, high yield activities, or even games such as ‘Hot Seat!’ or ‘I Have/Who Has’. In short, we need to allow students to activate, acquire, and apply word meanings in order to meaningfully commit them to long-term memory.

Has there been any success with this sort of approach to language development? Is the systematic teaching of content words supported by research? Kimberly Tyson has developed a 5-Step approach for effective vocabulary instruction that seems to align with this theoretical idea. She explains that ‘systematic vocabulary instruction is an integral part of a K-12 comprehensive literacy framework for instruction’ but that there remains a gap in how to implement that system within the classroom. Her solution is simple: know the key characteristics of effective vocabulary instruction, identify and sort key vocabulary into three tiers, create a print-rich environment, identify and master evidence-based instructional strategies, and choose digital tools that support word learning (Tyson, 2013).

With all this considered, it is still important to note that most of these strategies can be implemented within the classroom, but the critical period for language acquisition occurs before many youngsters even set foot within such a structured environment. The earliest gains in language occur in the home environment. In fact, by age eight or nine, when vocabulary development is being introduced by elementary school teachers, the plasticity of the brain to learn new words is already shutting down. In constrast, two-year-olds often learn two to three new words each day (Craig & Kermis, 1995).

Therefore, what strategies can parents implement to ensure progress before the structure of public education is introduced? Most strategies are naturally occurring interactions that are already in place. For example, singing rhyming songs (‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’) or reading bedtime stories (even those with non-words, as you might find in Dr. Seuss) stimulates infant language development, and the complexity can be enhanced into the toddler years. Narrative play would further provide language instruction for toddlers; I remember my own shock that my two-year old knew the word ‘mannequin’ simply from an explanation I had given walking through a department store one day. Now that my daughter is almost four, we have introduced more advanced reading strategies into her storybook routine – asking for predictions, having her point out and explain parts of illustrations, making connections to other stories we might have read. In short, ‘the best way to facilitate language development requires no props or expensive equipment. Language can be promoted by simply talking with children’ (Crosser, 2008).

This then begs the question: how can we tackle early childhood literacy issues when faced with an economic achievement gap? Bergland (2014) explains that children from low-SES backgrounds may hear 30 million fewer words by age three. Before they even enter school, they are worlds behind. Those same children, at age five, score two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school. To truly make an impact, we must educate low-income parents on ways to increase language interaction from birth to 18-months.

Dr. Dana Suskind, Professor of Surgery at the University of Chicago, has tackled this problem by developing the ‘Three-T’ approach: Tune In. Talk More. Take Turns. Parents are encouraged to pay attention to what a child is focused on, offer descriptive words to communicate with the child about the situation of interest, and then engage in the child’s response or attempts at conversation. The ‘Too Small to Fail’ campaign adheres to these same ideas, even suggesting that the ‘vocabulary gap’ should be viewed under the same lens as child malnutrition (Bergland, 2014).

Some experts are now saying that technology is the answer to bridging this gap, but I do not concur with that stance. Having spent the year prior working in a school with a high demographic of low-SES students, I find that technology skills are often at a lower level than vocabulary or language skills. The frustration that comes with utilizing online resources would further escalate negative feelings struggling students often harbor about learning. Further, even though interactive language and speech programs might provide verbal interaction that is not given at home, this relationship is still somewhat impersonal and does not truly align with a natural socio-cultural link such as Vygotsky’s. I equate this to studies of children watching television – parents might believe the child is being stimulated, but the lack of human connection is sometimes stunting the potential for growth. It also does not serve a student to provide them with a school-based solution that is not practical for their home environment. Students living in poverty do not have access to technological resources at home, and is it fair to take away that lifeline for three-quarters of their day? Teaching context-based skills and strategies, as mentioned before, provides them with an anywhere, anytime coping mechanism that in no way limits their potential for improvement.

Regardless of approach, it is clear that the issue needs to be addressed. All educators should prioritize vocabulary development across the disciplines to enhance opportunities for student-learning and overall cognitive growth. The disparity is already present, but it is up to us to fight the widening of the gap and ensure as many post-graduate opportunities are available to our students as possible. Together, we can end the cycle of poverty through enhancements in the educational arena.

Bergland, C. (2014, February 16). Tackling the “Vocabulary Gap” Between Rich and Poor Children. Retrieved February 14, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/tackling-the-vocabulary-gap-between-rich-and-poor-children

Craig, C., & Kermis, M. (1995).Children Today. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc. Gelman, R. & Shatz, M. (1977). Appropriate speech adjustments: The operation of conversational constraints on talk to two-year-olds. In M. Lewis and L.A.Rosenblum (Eds.) Interaction, Conversation, and the Development of Language. New York: Wiley.

Crosser, S. (2008). Earlychildhood NEWS – Article Reading Center. Retrieved February 14, 2016, from http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx? ArticleID=119

Graves, M. F., & Slater, W. H. (1987). The development of reading vocabularies in rural disadvantaged students, inner-city disadvantaged students, and middle-class suburban students.

Santrock, J. W. (2013). Children. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Smith, M. K. (1941). Measurement of the size of general English vocabulary through the elementary grades and high school. Genetic Psychological Monographs, 24, 311-345.

Tyson, K. (2013, July 05). {5 Steps Series} 5 Simple Steps for Effective Vocabulary Instruction l Dr. Kimberly’s Literacy Blog. Retrieved February 14, 2016, from http://www.learningunlimitedllc.com/2013/07/5-steps-vocabulary-instruction/

Vaazkz, Danilavsky Oropezovich. “Vygotsky and Language Development.” Vygotsky and Language Development. Ventas at Corporativo Alebrije, 6 Oct. 2012. Web. 1

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