Monday, January 17, 2011

Talkin' Vocabulary Blues

Today's Dallas Morning News cites a 1995 study by Hart and Risley that links vocabulary to income levels.  Interesting stuff - you can view statistics from Hart and Risley's and related studies here.  In a nutshell, the researchers found that kids in economically disadvantaged homes hear about 600 words in a typical hour, compared to more than 1,200 words per hour in working-class homes and more than 2,100 words per hour in homes where the parents hold professional-level jobs.  The number of different words per hour rose similarly by economic level. 

So what does that mean?  Vocabulary, of course, has a well-established correlation to intelligence and academic achievement.  I had a psychology professor who stated flatly that vocabulary is intelligence.  Many of the standard IQ tests were developed on that very principle.  My Beloved Spouse tells his students every semester that you can't learn history without learning vocabulary; after all, how can you understand the signifcance of, say, agriculture in American history if you don't know what agriculture means?  (Some of his students - college freshman - don't, and can't.)

Now, you can't conclude from any of this that poor people are dumb and rich people are smart - I can give you plenty of examples to bust either of those notions, and I'll bet you can, too.  But if you believe in the general correlation between education and economic success (and you do, or you wouldn't tear out your hair every time your kids "forget" to finish their homework), it's easy to trace the progression from kids who don't acquire a broad vocabulary to students who don't succeed academically to adults who don't achieve economically to parents who don't expose their kids to a broad vocabulary.  And on and on.  It's certainly not the only mechanism to explain economic mobility, or lack thereof, but it's a pretty persuasive one.

As the Dallas Morning News points out, the best and most productive ways to break the vocabulary spiral don't involve task forces, tax increases, or wholesale changes in our educational system.  In fact, they cost little to nothing.  Talk to your kids - a lot.  Read to them, often.  Watch a documentary or a news program once in a while, something that features words instead of dramatic pauses and loud music.  Make a point of being curious about something and then pass along what you learn.  You don't have to become a scholar, just a slightly more interesting person. 

Why?  Because we owe it to our kids to show them that there is always more.  More to learn, more to understand, and most importantly, more to name.  To quote playwright Eve Ensler, "I believe in naming what's right in front of us because that is often what is most invisible."  Don't be blind to the effect you have on your kids.  Even if they almost always do just the opposite of what you say, don't assume that if you fail to use words, they'll automatically embrace them.  It just doesn't work that way. 

In our house, Precocious Daughter sometimes has to fight to get in a word edgewise, or literally beg us to stop talking, just for a little while.  I think we climb past the 2,100 words a day plateau on a regular basis.  Believe me, we're not necessarily talking about quantum physics or the Industrial Revolution.  We're not even making a consicous attempt to broaden her vocabulary.  We're just talkers.  Sometimes we talk about pretty idiotic stuff.  But even debating which singer used more Auto-Tune on his last single teaches PDaughter to listen critically and form opinions and to enjoy doing it.  And when we do finally shut up, she amazes us with what she's learned.     

And now if you'll excuse me, I have to go look up the word crinoid.  She learned about it at camp, and I have no idea what it means.

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