by Annemarie Tompsen

As a writing center associate, I’ve tutored college students from all walks of life. Socioeconomic status (SES) can vary greatly from student to student, and no student shares the same academic needs with another. Tutoring needs depend on their writing and reading level. Students can experience huge differences in reading and writing skill levels, and this gap starts when they are only children. Many individuals agree that literacy plays a large part in the evolution of a child‘s educational growth, and it starts in the home.

But what is the ideal age for a child to most effectively learn? Anne Fernald, an American psychologist and Stanford University professor, specializes in child language development. In a 2013 study, she found that the foundation for language development is extremely important before age two. This time is crucial for children’s language processing speed. The more words they hear and vocabulary associations they are able to make, the higher their vocabulary growth is likely to evolve over the years that follow. The study also revealed that, when they are only two years old, children from disadvantaged SES groups are already approximately six months behind their higher SES counterparts.

But are these findings really the final say?

Fernald spoke recently at a TEDx event on this topic. She discusses the connection between SES and language processing that research has found, specifically from her study at Stanford. Fernald acknowledges this data but also enlightens the audience with the true importance of child literacy: parental support. Children, no matter where they stand in the spectrum of SES, will benefit from learning language both directly and indirectly in the home. This, as Fernald points out, is the key to increasing a child’s mental processing speed.

Children require an increased amount of natural conversation in the home. This includes reading books, asking questions and indentifying items during playtime. According to Dr. David Dickinson, this approach of teaching in the home will help to increase a child’s mental processing speed for vocabulary. Investing early in a child’s life can help to shape their academic future.

Inadequate opportunities for early learning can happen to any child despite their family’s standing in the economy. As Fernald points out in her TEDx presentation, there are outliers in every category. Children from disadvantaged families have exceeded the average vocabulary for their sampling group and vice versa. Regardless, children need to be provided with parental support for their linguistic nutrition. As Fernald says in her speech, “Babies are born ready to learn.” If provided the opportunity to grow, children can achieve educational greatness despite the SES group they may be associated with.

With the guidance of a parent or guardian, children can excel during year two. No matter the numbers, SES does not define an individual’s ability to learn. With careful attention and early childhood support, there is hope beyond the gap.

Did You Know?
The Dick and Jane book series was used in the 1930s through the 1970s, primarily as a basal reader to teach children how to read. Published by Scott Foresman, these books were accompanied by teachers’ guides to help with the learning process. The books used the look-say, or whole word, method. This was used to emphasize a word’s meaning rather than practicing phonetics.