Though many solutions focus on early education, there are ways teachers can help older students overcome the word gap.
There is a noticeable difference between the learning tools available to children who attend schools in higher-income neighborhoods and those students from low-income districts. Teachers who work in poorer neighborhoods often cite a lack of parent participation for student failure when it comes to addressing the word gap. The United States Department of Health & Human Services’ Administration for Children & Families (ACF) cites President Obama’s explanation of the word gap as “…during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family.”
How the Word Gap Works
By engaging babies from the early stages of life, parents can ensure that they are laying the groundwork for successful educational development. The key to early education is not only exposing children to new words, but is also dependent on frequency of the practice, quality of engagement, and integration of new strategies. When parents or guardians do not create this foundation, the word gap will likely form during early childhood, increasing the likelihood students will not perform well among their peers or at grade level throughout their school career.
While parents can independently research methods to create a strong educational base for their children, programs such as state-run First 5 California provide opportunities to learn how to promote child development within the first five years of life. The state’s partnership with Scholastic has evolved to offer complimentary materials to parents and teachers to recognize the opportunities for cultivating development during this crucial time. In addition to providing tools for little ones, Scholastic also includes a site to engage older children. The STACKS, aimed at children ages eight to 12, provides tools to spark interest in age-appropriate reading materials, such as book lists, discussion forums, an online user community for children, games, and videos. Resources like The STACKS could help children compensate for time lost during early childhood development, thereby eliminating, or easing, the long-term effects of the word gap.
Effects of Ignoring the Word Gap
Students who weren’t engaged in early learning could fall behind academic standards and peers who received access to developmental tools and programs. By not setting standards for academic growth early in a child’s life, parents might establish a course on which children accept failure or mediocrity due to their ignorance of the great potential that they possess.
Things Teachers Can Start Doing Now
While the ACF recommends providing engaging and effective early education, and arming parents with the tools to help their children succeed during the first few years of life, developing a plan of action is also necessary for older, middle- and high-school children who didn’t receive this type of foundation. To reach older children whose education has been impacted by the word gap, incorporate the following methods to help compensate for lost time:
- Go back to their roots – When introducing new vocabulary, offer background information – origin, part of speech, all possible definitions, and example sentences – for each term.
- A perfect pair – Group students into pairs for group work, ask them to create their own set of vocabulary flashcards, and quiz each other on new terms.
- Student teaching – Ask students to think about how they study vocabulary, their largest obstacles to learning new vocabulary words, and how they can improve the quality of their study. Dedicate class time to a discussion regarding these issues that contribute to the word gap problems in their lives.
- Learning from little ones – Advise children to begin working with younger siblings and cousins, or pair students with younger schoolmates by creating a mentorship program. By reading to and helping younger children overcome the word gap, older students will build confidence and learn more.
While teachers are limited regarding how they can influence the first few years of a child’s life, there is always the potential for helping disadvantaged students overcome the educational hurdles created in their past. Defeating the word gap is no different, and though it will take a bit more effort, most children can overcome this challenge with a bit of help and encouragement.