Vocabulary and Reading: Give Your Kids a Fighting Chance

U.S. students -- from the richest to the least privileged -- have trouble with words, and they're getting worse. This time, though, it's not just the schools that are failing them.


A recent news report got me thinking about students I've known who have weak vocabularies and poor reading comprehension. Late last week, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) released results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which showed that U.S. students fell well short of what they were expected to know on a new vocabulary section of a national exam.

This didn't surprise me. One of the strongest impressions I took away from my decade as a teacher of high-school juniors and seniors had to do with the weakness of their vocabularies. I was regularly astonished at the simple words many of them did not understand.

The NAEP report also got me thinking more about how having a weak vocabulary is a limitation that has roots in very early childhood and that, in this as in so many other areas of life, family income and other home circumstances have enormous effects on vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. Research has shown that the differences in the number of words kids are exposed to in different living situations are astounding: Between professional households and low-income households, there is a gap of 32 million words over the first four years of life. And there is a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement.

The NAEP report confirms that there are stark achievement gaps in vocabulary across racial and ethnic groups, as well as income levels, and that, overall, American students have weak vocabularies that are not improving.

The report lists words that tripped up many students. For example, roughly half of fourth-graders could not figure out, from seeing it in context, that the word "puzzled" means confused. Nearly half of eight-graders did not know the word "permeated" means "spread all the way through." Only half of twelfth-graders knew the meaning of "mitigate; less than half knew the meaning of "delusion" and "urbane."

As I say, none of this surprised me. The way I came to appreciate the vocabulary deficits of many of my eleventh- and twelfth-grade students was during tests. They seldom raised a hand during class time to ask about the meaning of a word. But in the higher-stakes situation of a test, they must have felt it worthwhile to catch my attention and ask me privately to define a word. Rarely did a testing period go by without at least one student asking for such help. These accumulated experiences gave me a sense of the scope of the vocabulary and reading-comprehension problems out there.

The weakness of students' vocabularies was a common topic of conversation -- and despair -- among the teachers at my school. And it's worth noting that we were not teaching in a low-income district where students are more likely to have weak vocabularies and poor reading skills. Rather, we taught at a private school for girls, most of whom came from extraordinarily privileged families with all the support and learning advantages their elevated socioeconomic status could impart.

Why do so many of these fortunate students have problems with vocabulary and reading comprehension? The most obvious answer is that they aren't doing much reading. I'm not an expert on vocabulary acquisition, but I can report on what I observe: Students who read a lot have strong vocabularies; those who read less have weaker vocabularies. There's nothing unusual about this. Seeing words in context helps us understand what they mean and recognize the proper spelling of words we've heard.

The connection might lead us to think that the best way to improve students' vocabularies is to get them to read more. True. The problem, of course, is that students with weak vocabularies have poor reading comprehension. As a result, they don't like to read. A cycle of cumulative deterioration sets in.

Is all this yet another sign of failure on the part of the American school system? I think not. I see it as a sign of failure on the part of two societal forces that shape our schools: the larger culture, and individual families.

The larger culture certainly is not helping to nourish good reading habits. Television is always there. So are Facebook, Twitter, and myriad other diversions. If my students' poor vocabularies were a shock to me, so was learning how much time they spent watching television and viewing favorite movies multiple times. Neither students' vocabularies nor their reading skills are improving while they're planted in front of Glee or the Twilight series. (Need I note that no other skills are improving at those times, either?)

But I don't think the larger culture is chiefly to blame here. The real responsibility rests with parents. And not just for letting their kids veg out in front of the TV for hours, but for failing to provide the conditions and model the sorts of behavior that can make a huge difference to a young person's vocabulary development and reading skills.

It's when we drill down to the individual family level that we see why higher-income families have such a substantial advantage in giving their kids the sorts of opportunities that really make a difference for learning. Poorer families devote the vast majority of their incomes (and, in many cases, their time) to meeting basic human needs of food and shelter. Richer families are in the fortunate position to use disposable income and time to expose their children to reading materials, conversation, and life experiences that enrich their vocabularies and teach them about the world that surrounds them.

That matters a lot. Not only does a weak vocabulary lead to poor reading comprehension, so does a lack of knowledge about basic social, economic, political, and scientific realities -- in short, "real-world" knowledge. This is different from "street smarts," which can be enormously advantageous, but which don't translate into learning advantages in school.

With respect to that general knowledge base, Daniel Willingham has explained that after young students have developed the decoding skills associated with learning to read, the difference between good readers and poor readers largely has to do with "differences in the knowledge that kids bring to the reading. It's easy to read something when you already know something about the topic. And if you don't know about the topic, it's utterly opaque to you."

The truth of his observation is familiar to any teacher. I got so that I could tell fairly reliably which of my students came from homes where the parents read a lot at home, where there were lots of books, magazines, newspapers, and other reading materials available, and where the parents talked to their kids about interesting developments in the news.

Equally obvious were the households where those things lost out to shared preoccupations with shopping and consumption, sports, physical appearance, and the like. You may think I'm being elitist, or willfully retrograde. I don't think so. Ask any teacher who has been at it for a number of years and they will tell you the same thing. The differences are clear and manifest.

If you want to foster your kids' vocabulary, reading comprehension, and real-world knowledge, it's best to start that effort when they're very young because, as noted, the foundations of a strong vocabulary are laid by the age of three or four. Exposing your kids to words, orally and in writing, sets them up for future achievement.

But it's not as if the window of opportunity for making a huge difference in your kid's life closes after the age of four. After that, you can still make a big difference by following lessons that emerge from teachers' observations and that have the wisdom of the ages backing them up. Whatever your circumstances and income level, do what you can to give your kids a fighting chance by shaping the home environment so they have an abundance of rich materials around from which they can learn about the real world. To the best of your ability, do the following:

  • Speak to your children, early and often.

  • Read to them a lot when they're young
  • Give them encouraging feedback.

  • Set high expectations.
  • Help them learn from failures and setbacks.
  • Encourage a "growth mindset."

Oh, and don't try to lay all the blame on the schools. In this case, dear parent, the responsibility and the opportunity to make a difference rest chiefly with you.