Vocabulary Development As the Key to Closing the Achievement Gap
“To grow up as the child of well-educated parents in an affluent American home is to hit the verbal lottery,” says Robert Pondiscio in this Education Gadfly article. “In sharp contrast, early disadvantages in language among low-income children – both the low volume of words they hear and the way in which they are employed – establish a verbal inertia that is immensely difficult to address or reverse… When it comes to vocabulary, size matters.” A robust vocabulary correlates strongly with school achievement, SAT scores, college attendance and graduation, and higher adult earnings even among those who don’t attend college.
So how do less-fortunate students build vocabulary? Not through studying and memorizing decontextualized word lists, says Pondiscio, but through repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context – especially Tier 2 words like verify, superior, and negligent. These middle-tier words “are essential to reading comprehension,” he says, “and undergird more subtle and precise use of language, both receptive (reading, hearing) and expressive (writing, speaking)… There is a language of upward mobility in America. It has an expansive and nuanced vocabulary that it employs to nimbly navigate the world of organizations, institutions, and opportunities.”
Consider the word durable. Here’s how a student might gradually master the word and add it to long-term memory by encountering it in four content-area texts: