Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog

Closing the 30 Million Word Gap Before Third Grade

By Paula Dugger, M. Ed., Guest Blogger

Research by Hart and Risley (1995) concluded that by the time some children reached four years of age, they heard roughly 30 million more words than the other four-year-olds in the study. The same children were followed for several years during their schooling, and the gap widened; this yielded the term 30 million word gap. In today's blog post, I'll provide instructional tips that you can share with parents to close the word gap for kids in primary grades.

Differences in communication have a direct impact on how a child acquires new vocabulary and develops language skills (Hart and Risley 1995). Vocabulary growth and oral language development hold the key to early childhood success. The good news is that a variety of easy-to-use activities will help enrich language development for kids as young as infants.

In her book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain (2015), Dr. Dana Suskind reveals the most important thing parents can do for children is to talk to their kids beginning at birth. According to Suskind, “Language exposure is what feeds early brain development." She also suggests “Three T’s: Tune in to what [the] child is doing; Talk more to [their] child using lots of descriptive words; Take turns with [the] child as [they] engage in conversation.“

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Simple Tips to Share with Parents

How can you help parents prepare children for kindergarten and close the word gap before third grade? Here is a list of ideas you can share with parents:

  • Talk, listen, and react to utterances infants make to validate their attempts with language.
  • Resist the urge to reinforce “baby talk” by restating what the child said with more sophisticated vocabulary and use correct pronunciation.
  • Talk about things you do with kids as you are doing them. This will help kids learn how things work and understand the importance of asking questions.
  • Provide playtime for the child to act out everyday activities modeled for them on a daily basis, such as cooking and eating. This will encourage children to use their voices to talk and ask questions.
  • Sing songs and recite nursery rhymes because there are special types of speech that can prepare the brain, voice, and ears for language. 
  • Read and reread a range of books for kids to help children practice listening and speaking, which are vital for brain development and introducing reading skills. An early start will set the stage for a lifelong love of reading.
  • Encourage kids to read wordless books to ignite their imaginations as they use images on each page to tell their own versions of a story. 
  • Move from wordless picture books to books that contain one-word captions and simple sentence structure to engage the child in conversations.
  • Provide at least twenty-five exposures to new words so that words can become a part of their child's vocabulary.

Make sure that you're consistent when you reach out to help parents work hand-in-hand with their children at home. It's important that you explain to parents how to reinforce what is being taught in your classroom, and it's essential to demonstrate how they can easily have conversations about stories they read to their kids.

Demonstrating Easy Activities for Parents to Help Their Kids

Marie Clay defines reading as a “message-getting, problem-solving activity, which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced.” Teaching children to read is extremely complex because kids have to comprehend at least 95% of the vocabulary for the words to have meaning. If you're going to guide parents to help their kids, you'll need to explain the purpose and model the use of tools that ensure vocabulary development and reading comprehension practice.

One activity that you can show parents how to do with their kids is completing a T-chart to check for understanding. You can use The Ant and the Grasshopper and Getting Ready for Winter as examples of paired texts that offer opportunities for parents to compare and contrast with their first-grade students. Explain to parents that animals should be listed on the left side of the T-chart, and the right side can be a space for their child to write or illustrate how each animal gets ready for winter.

Another easy activity to help parents activate their children's prior knowledge requires you to show them how to create a KWL chart. Explain and show parents that the first column is used to help the child list all the things that he or she knows about a specific topic before reading a leveled book. Then explain that the second column is for children to record what they might want to learn. After that, explain how useful the last column will be for their children to show what they learned after reading the text. Keep in mind that you should clarify when it's appropriate for their kids to fill out each column before, during, and after reading.

If you want to show family members how to use word sorts with their kids, you can use Cinderella as the sample narrative text that they can practice reading with their kids. As you demonstrate for parents, you can use examples from the book, such as mean, work, ugly, magic, and sparkle, to show how much fun they can have teaching their kids how to sort words into categories.

To show parents how to help their kids take ownership of their learning, you can explain that kids should be encouraged to choose the categories that will be used for sorting. Then parents can guess the names of each group based on how the child categorizes the words. To deepen children's understanding of words in each category, you can also model for parents how to invite kids to think of a synonym for each word.

Explore more narrative and informational texts that are available as Paired  Texts by clicking here.

Some families may not fully understand the direct correlation between verbal interactions at home and the development of a child's vocabulary from birth. For this reason, it is imperative that you give ample and consistent support to provide a strong foundation of language at home. The conversations between children and their families will help improve vocabulary and eliminate the possibility of a word gap before third grade.

Don't forget to visit our blog soon for more insights and tips for helping kids strengthen literacy skills.

Paula is an educational consultant who has previously served as a Reading Recovery Teacher/Teacher Leader, first grade teacher, Title I and high school reading teacher, and a Reading Coordinator. If you like what you read here, you can enjoy more from Paula on our blog.