The Early Vocabulary Advantage

In Closing The Vocabulary Gap, Research Evidence by Alex Quigley9 Comments

“Dad, what is a whisk’s favourite drink?”

“I don’t know. What is a whisk’s favourite drink?”

“Whisky!”

And so starts my young boy’s burgeoning entertainment career. So far, it is full of bad puns and energetic attempts at word play. Most jokes narrowly miss the mark, but they are no less fun. What proves more serious business is that such children who learn to use and play with words, effortlessly growing their vocabulary, whilst engaging in rich talk in homes full of a world of words, get an important early vocabulary advantage on their peers.

We know that the quantity and quality of early language experiences have a profound impact on how children develop, how they access learning when they reach school, and how they go onto read and succeed throughout their schooling. The statistics can prove stark. Many children hear five times as many words in their homes as their peers, seeing a ‘vocabulary gap’ develop quickly in the earliest years, before school even starts.

The government, in their recent social mobility plan, ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’, have indicated a laudable ambition: to “close the ‘word gap’ in the early years”. Complex problems, like social equality and mobility, clearly require complex and multi-faceted solutions, and yet sometimes the solution should begin at the beginning, offering us all a starting point. Given the importance of early language, focusing on vocabulary development in the earliest years is one complex solution worth pursuing.

Helping every child to have the early advantage of successful language development is likely the best educational priority we can select. Crucially, however, we know language gaps develop early and prove resistant to being closed. We need to know more and invest time, energy and funding into ensuring successful early vocabulary development.

So what can we do about ensuring every child sees the benefit of the early vocabulary advantage?

We can invest in early education, certainly, alongside supporting parents to hone in on the rich talk that best facilitates vocabulary growth.

We know that simply more talk and more vocabulary in the home is better for a child’s vocabulary development. Children who hear more talk, with more talk directed to them, hear a greater amount of frequent words, as well as hearing more infrequent, rare words so important to vocabulary growth. It is important to recognise that different contexts offer different language experiences:

“Day in and day out, conversations about eating breakfast or getting dressed may present little diversity in the words directed to the child while a new event, such as a trip to a zoo or museum, may provide an influx of new words. Indeed, research studying how parents talk in different contexts supports this conclusion and as young children often show gains in vocabulary immediately following novel experiences such as trips to zoos.”

‘Quantity and diversity:  Simulating early word learning environments’ by Jessica L. Montag et al.

The implications here for parents being able to have the time and money to undertake such quite literally ‘rich’ language experiences is clear, but even then, parental confidence in such novel contexts really matters too (such as this research on parents talking about Science at a museum). We are left to consider how to support parents and then how to translate this diversity of vocabulary and communication from early years contexts back to the home.

One simple solution is to help unpick what rich talk looks like and sounds like. Regardless of the context, there are certain qualities that mark out talk that is better for developing a child’s vocabulary and accelerating their language development:

  • Turn-taking. The quality of our talk is obviously crucial and balanced turn-taking is vital to not only holding the attention of young children, but seeing them develop their language.
  • Expanding and recasting. When your daughter says “It’s big car” – you can expand upon it and recast the grammar a little too, “Yes – it is a big, red car – isn’t it enormous?
  • Extending and explaining. Explaining stuff, such as what is going to happen at the shops, or what happened on holiday last year, is the type of extended talk and language that has a positive impact on a child’s vocabulary developing successfully.

For many parents and teachers, these qualities of talk will be second-nature, but not every child experiences the early advantage of such rich talk.

 

The Power of Picture Books

A crucial gateway to the diverse and sophisticated vocabulary needed for a child to grow their personal word hoard is the act of reading.

Story-time is full of rare and sophisticated vocabulary and patterns of language. More complex than the daily conversation of adults, never mind talk with children, the vocabulary and talk that attends reading picture books is a vital source of linguistic richness. If more talk for young children matters, then more reading, and talk about such reading, may well matter most for vocabulary development.

Going the zoo and talking about the animals can of course be matched by reading a great picture book about, well – going the zoo.

Without any explicit awareness of the vocabulary benefits of reading with my children, the daily act of reading with my children, and filling their rooms and our home full of books, has only served to accelerate their early language advantage. We know that many disadvantaged children simply don’t have these privileges. Research by the National Literacy Trust has shown that “one in eight of the most disadvantaged children say they don’t have a book of their own at home”.

It is the opportunity to delve into the world of stories, before a child can even begin the process of reading for themselves, that offers countless early and long-lasting advantages. How we support parents to read with children is a small but vital solution to accelerate language development and to close the ‘word gap’?

Small but significant reading habits can be encouraged. We can nudge behaviours such as asking children to recap and summarise what they have read previously, or help young children learn new words with child-friendly explanations, connecting new words, like ‘automatic’, to their existing word-hoard, such as ‘car’ and ‘vehicle’. We can ask them questions about the images (interestingly, children may fare better with a single illustration, rather than two, in the act of learning new words) and work with parents on reading successfully and habitually.

We can too easily assume that the act of reading to a child is easy or natural. Without patronising brilliant parent readers, or for that matter teacher-readers, we should consider the minutiae of reading. It is these small, seemingly insignificant acts of language growth that accumulate for a child so that they amass a wealth of language that can see them surpass the seeming limitations of their material background.

For me and my little boy it will be more jokes, more laughs, more talk, more days out, more books for reading and talking, and yet more books. Let’s make it so every child has access to such an early vocabulary advantage.

 

Closing the Vocabulary Gap‘ is my latest book – you can take a look on Amazon HERE

Comments

    1. Author

      Thanks Carly. There are solutions. It takes support in the home, the community and the school, and the issues are complex, but with investment and collaboration, I think we could make a genuine difference to the lives of many children.

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  2. So do I. I would like to see Health Visiting teams taking more action with this: giving you information etc. My son is 2 and to date no one has ever checked if he can talk, if I read to him etc. He has jabs and that’s it. There is a problem with the way we support families.

  3. Such a lovely article. Really useful- thank you.

  4. I wished i had the energy and money to help develop my children’s vocabulary from childhood. The exposure might be the problem that time but I wish that parents nowadays have learnt this as they have greater opportunities to enable their children to improve their vocabulary at an early age.

  5. It begins with talking to your baby, explaining what you are doing, where you are going, what things look like, taste like and smell like – immersing them in words and believing that they are listening and understand….even if you look and seem absolutely ridiculous !…..early intervention needs to be ‘even earlier intervention’ ……..the difference in language development is already evident by the time children reach school yet there is little funding to be had to support settings where many of our youngest children spend time. Wasn’t the ‘two year old check’ designed as an early indicator? We need to help parents understand that they are the child’s first educator and support those parents who perhaps lack confidence or the belief that their role is critical.
    A really great article Alex.

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