More than ever before, schools have been striving to afford each child an equal opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, many children may enter school with a disadvantage based simply on their parents’ professions and where they live. By the time they begin preschool, children know quite a few words. According to Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, those from affluent families know about 1,100 unique words, while children from working-class families know only 750. Children from welfare families know significantly fewer words, averaging at 525, less than half as many words as their well-to-do counterparts. The reasoning provided is that professional families are found to talk to their children more, so the children gain vocabulary at a quicker rate. Higher-class children are also found to hear a higher ratio of encouragements to discouragements than their lower-class peers.
As the most important aspect of children’s language experience is quantity, some students start at such a disadvantage that they may never catch up. In kindergarten, there is limited vocabulary instruction overall, with teachers giving few structured lessons on vocabulary. The choice of words to teach is seemingly random. Teachers choose “teachable” moments, like when the class is reading a book, to define new words. Because of the lax way of choosing, the words taught might appear more sophisticated but not prove as relevant in school or make a solid connection that allows the student to truly learn the word. In addition, class differences also have an effect on these teachable moments. In a study conducted by two Michigan State University and University of Michigan professors, teachers in wealthier schools explained three more words and two more challenging words daily than those in less affluent schools. Regardless of words taught, it was found that teachers rarely returned to the words after their initial instruction. This is particularly detrimental to students, as previous studies indicate that it takes hearing a word around twenty-eight times for students to learn it.
With such varying levels of vocabulary and no concrete way of developing more, it is not surprising that some kindergarteners are finding new Common Core standards overwhelming. The requirements are quite demanding, including requiring kids to be able to compose basic explanatory texts and to demonstrate “algebraic thinking.” These difficult tasks have led to stress in students, with some being reported to have broken down crying in class because they are unable to complete their work. This may be the result of the lack of continuity in schools, the issue being that preschools and kindergartens are not all Common Core based and consistent. More defined and reliable requirements for teaching vocabulary may better serve students, allowing them to flourish in later years of school.