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Deputy Head's Blog: Mind The Gap!

Posted on 14th Nov 2018 by Chris Barnes

How many words do you know?  I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself that question.  We are surrounded by a wealth of words and they profoundly affect our lives - the words we use and receive, hear and speak.  With well over a million words in the English language alone, we cannot know them all, but a greater awareness of the meanings, uses and even abuses of words helps us to develop something like the word-hoard of 60,000 words that we need to thrive in school and beyond.

Researchers in the United States found that from birth to 48 months, parents in professional families spoke 32 million more words to their children than those in welfare families, and this talk gap between the ages of 0 and 3 years explains the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the reading and mathematic achievement gap aged 10.  The vital importance of talk and language development in the early years is clear.  

A similar study in Britain compared the vocabulary skills of thousands of five year olds, following them from the 1970s and into their 30s.  Those with a restricted vocabulary at 5 years old were more likely to be poor readers as adults, experience higher unemployment rates and even have more mental health issues.  It was also clear from this study that those who were ‘word poor’ were unable to recognise and name fewer pictures than their more advantaged peers.

Consider that for a moment.  For children, the limits of their vocabulary prove the limits of their world.  It is for all of us to help children leave school with a word-hoard of close to 60,000 words.  With all of their complexity and depth, words make us who we are, and help us become who we could be.  As a case in point, back in 2016 the educational news was awash with tales of Key Stage 2 SATs exams including vocabulary items such as: ‘unearthed’, ‘drought’, ‘freshwater oasis’, ‘parched’, ‘receding’, suffocation’ and ‘extinct’.  This is the reading challenge faced by 10 and 11 year olds.  This is the nationally-expected level…at Edenhurst we therefore set our sights higher again.

The future success of children rests predominantly on their ability to become proficient and fluent readers.  Their capacity to learn, and enjoy learning - regardless of context - is bound to their reading skill.  If they can read it, they can say it.  If they can say it with confidence, it provides them with a key to success for their future beyond school.

There is a well-used Biblical aphorism put forward by literacy experts like Keith Stanovich, called the ‘Matthew Effect’.  Put simply, “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”.  Put simply, the word-rich get richer, but the word-poor get poorer.

We know just how much reading matters.  Most of our vocabulary development is learned through wider reading, and then incrementally in repeated exposure to those same words.  A good reader at 10 years old is encountering a million words a year.  Encouraging more reading is, to use the American term, a ‘no-brainer’.  It is the quality of what is read that matters, as well as the reinforcement of vocabulary through conversation and explicit instruction within a range of environments.

This is WHY reading is important…but it isn’t simply a case of picking up book after book.  In next fortnight’s newsletter, I’ll talk more about how we develop and extend vocabulary to build for success, and how to help children who leave Edenhurst become 'word millionaires'.


Chris Barnes