Words, the coin of the education realm


Email Sandra Nichols

  "The children I know who come to school with well-developed vocabularies in their native language, learn English well and thrive in the public school environment."


op Quiz! Who said, "Today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society," declaring war on poverty?

It's been nearly 40 years since Lyndon Johnson made that declaration of war and the progress is not that good.

Here's another one for you. Who said, "segregated schools are not equal and cannot be made equal"?

That little quotation will have its Fiftieth birthday soon and the progress on this is not good either. It was with those words Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous, May 17, 1954 decision effectively banning segregation in public schools. The case: Brown vs. the Board of Education.

Now there's a lot of water under the bridge since then. But the fact remains "we've got problems, right here in River City. Who said that? Travelling salesman and music man, Harold Hill.

Recently "The American Educator" published a report entitled "The Early Catastrophe — The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3." Those of us into social justice are feeling justified in our concerns. The report paints another picture of the "haves" and the "have-nots", which is troubling in a land in which people believe in equal opportunities for all.

Researchers found that children living in poverty have vocabularies that contain roughly half of the words acquired by children from more affluent families by the time the children are 3 years old. This is not surprising. It is natural to assume that parents who graduated from college would use a more extensive vocabulary than parents whose education was less extensive. It would be natural to expect the children of professionals to therefore know more words.

Interestingly enough, the researchers found that more affluent parents talked more to their children than parents of families living in poverty. The difference was amazing. The children of professionals had nearly 45 million words addressed to them by age 4 years, while children of poverty had a mere 13 million spoken to them. These kids are impoverished in more ways than one.

Hmmm! Maybe we should be spending a little more time talking with our kids!

Another fascinating finding was that the more affluent kids heard not only more words, but also heard encouraging comments many times more frequently — 32 per hour — and received many fewer reprimands — a mere 5 per hour. Meanwhile, in the poverty stricken families, children were being reprimanded at the rate of 11 times per hour, while being verbally encouraged only 5 times an hour.

One of the most important things parents can do for their children to prepare them for school is to talk to them! This is also a very important consideration when making day care and preschool choices. Your child's vocabulary at school entry is a predictor of school success. Words and encouragement, you see, are valuable gems that you give your children. Far more valuable than expensive toys.

Could you believe that socio-economic-status (SES) is more important in predicting school success than race or a person's ability to speak English? These are three associated features in American society: one's race, one's SES, and one's ability to speak English. They are related because language spoken is tied to culture and race, while one's capacity to earn a decent living, and thus SES, is closely related to one's English skills.

However, it is not the absence of English in a home nor a different cultural presence in the home that reduces a person's potential to become well educated. A home in which any language is spoken can provide a child with an extensive vocabulary in that language in preparation for school. Those language skills — in any language — will provide a solid foundation on which to build the skills of reading, writing, logic, organization, and essentially everything else which requires the use of the intellect.

The children I know who come to school with well-developed vocabularies in their native language, learn English well and thrive in the public school environment, especially when they have the opportunity to interrelate every day with English speaking peers.

This is why we must not forget lessons learned regarding segregated schools as we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education and continue to fight the War on Poverty.

Get yourself and your kids to the library this summer. There are a lot of words to learn and new thoughts to think. I'll see you there!

Sandra Nichols is President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 20,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2003