Strengthening Early Vocabulary Helps to Reduce the Achievement Gap Between Poor and Middle-Income Children

Early vocabulary development is an important part of early brain development and school readiness. Unfortunately, even by 3 years of age, low-income children have vocabularies that are far smaller than children from more affluent families. By 2nd grade, vocabular and language gaps have grown even wider (Biemiller & Slonim 2001). This is a serious issue in Memphis, where more than half of all children are born into low-income families and are at particular risk for poor early vocabulary development.

The good news is that there is a great deal we can do to strengthen early vocabulary development and – in doing so – reduce the achievement gap between low and middle income children and, in turn, increase the likelihood that children at greatest risk for poor academic outcomes will reach their optimal development. Summarizing reams of evidence: more is better when it comes to speaking, reading, singing, playing and interacting with young children.

Young children learn constantly: through conversations, television, and through stories and story books. Children are more likely to pay attention to words that pique their interest (Stahl & Yaden 2004). This happens when children become word conscious, or interested in learning about the new words they hear. Therefore, language development is a two-way process: the amount of verbal interaction with the child is as important as the amount of language used.

How can we grow word consciousness in young children? Educators point to four techniques:

  1. providing purposeful exposure to new vocabulary,
  2. intentionally teaching word meanings,
  3. teaching word- learning strategies, and
  4. giving children opportunities to use newly learned words.

These methods help children notice when a new word is used, attend to clues that suggest the word’s meaning, and organize this new information into their existing knowledge of word meanings.

Providing purposeful exposure to new words

Young children need to be exposed to new vocabulary to acquire word knowledge, and exposure in different contexts supports their acquisition of nuanced understandings of words’ meanings. Providing exposure in classrooms is critical, especially for those children who enter school knowing fewer words. This can occur in a variety of classroom settings:

  • Read-alouds

Reading books aloud in the classroom introduces children to new vocabulary in meaningful contexts. Children’s books tend to contain a high proportion of advanced vocabulary, and illustrations and texts that provide clues to new word meanings, which best supports vocabulary learning.

  • Teachers’ word use

A teacher’s intentional use of new vocabulary while talking with children is another effective way to promote word learning.  This is an important method because teachers can use new vocabulary throughout the day and during a variety of activities.

  • Multimedia presentations

 Hearing new vocabulary in DVDs and multimedia presentations also supports young children’s vocabulary learning. Electronic texts and read-alouds on DVDs can be motivating and effective when they call for children to actively engage with the words.

Intentionally teaching word meanings

Direct word-meaning instruction is an effective way to facilitate children’s vocabulary development, especially for words that represent unfamiliar concept. There are a couple approaches that make this tool an effective one:

  • Eliciting-type questions

To evoke children’s thinking about word meanings, teachers can ask them questions to elicit recognition of a vocabulary word.  Using questions to engage the word and its meaning results in children’s learning more word meanings than simply exposing them to words in context.

  • Embedded definitions

Teachers can also quickly explain word meanings when children encounter unfamiliar words when reading aloud. These explanations are called embedded definitions , because the explanation of the word’s meaning is embedded in the natural context in which the word occurs (Shore & Durso 199).

Teaching word-learning strategies

For young children to develop the mental tools to infer word meanings from context, they need to be taught how to do so. This process evolves over time, and different strategies should be used for different stages in the learning process. The following steps can be followed to support children in strategic word learning:

  • During first several read-alouds, use a “thinkaloud” by discussing the details of the story, illustrations and plot to model how to use clues and background knowledge to infer word meaning.
  • Then, ask questions about the clues, details, and background knowledge to guide them through the same process.
  • Next, ask them to infer word meanings independently, using background knowledge and the clues in the text. It is critical that the text have clues that suggest the word’s meaning in order for this type of instruction to work.

Offering opportunities to use newly learned words

Providing opportunities for children to use newly learned words is a critical aspect of supporting word learning. Constructing classroom activities in which children are likely to use newly learned words help to reinforce the learning process, and the vocabulary itself. One such activity is concept mapping, in which children work in groups to organize pictures of animals in a Venn diagram, grouping concepts in terns of similarities and differences. Other word-mapping activities include having children “read” or retell a story from a familiar book.

Using a variety of teaching methods, as described above, to improve children’s vocabularies helps to advance educational equity, because a well-developed vocabulary correlates with greater reading comprehension and general academic success. Literacy and vocabulary learning can and should begin at home, before children begin school. Many of the above-mentioned methods can be implemented at home, especially read alouds, embedding definitions and questions that elicit the use of new vocabulary. Studies are showing that spoken language has an astonishing impact on an infant's brain development. In fact, some researchers say the number of words an infant hears each day is the single most important predictor of later intelligence, school success and social competence.  Infants and babies develop most rapidly with caretakers who are not only loving, but also talkative and articulate, and that a more verbal family will increase an infant's chances for success. Parenting should engage in conversations and questioning rich with description. The child should be made to feel comfortable exploring and questioning things on their own so that they may be rewarded for such behavior and not ignored and/or punished. These early steps are the best attempts to close the vocabulary gap that exists between children of different income levels.


Biemiller, Andrew & Slonim, Naomi. (2001). Estimating Root Word Vocabulary Growth in Normative and Advantaged Populations: Evidence for a Common Sequence of Vocabulary Acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology , 93:3, 498-520.

Shore, Wendelyn, & Durso, Francis. (1990). Partial Knowledge in Vocabulary Acquisition: General Constraints and Specific Detail . Journal of Educational Psychology 82:2, 315-318.

Stahl, Steven & Yaden, David. (2004). The Development of Literacy in Preschool and Primary Grades: Work by the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement. The Elementary School Journal, 105:2, 141-165.