I have a good friend with a 7 month old daughter. Through his video clips on Facebook, I have watched E react to new toys, try all sorts of new foods, and learn to sit up. Around our house, we’re way past soft foods and teethers, so I watch with joy as E happily gums spoonfuls of bananas and sweet potato. But every time I watch, I’m struck by the silence. There are no adult sounds, just the occasional grunt or gurgle from baby E. When I finally asked E’s Mom and Dad about the silence, it turns out to be plain ‘ol stage fright — Mom and Dad are too shy to have their voice heard on video.
For those of us who worry, study and think about literacy development, we know the power of conversation and talk. We know about the heartbreaking 30 million word gap by age 3 (Hart & Risley) and take pains to share what we know with others, even if it’s at inopportune times.
Vocabulary is back on the front burner this week with Before a Test, a Poverty of Words from the NY Times. Bellafante writes about the topic through the lens of middle-schoolers in New York preparing for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, the multiple-choice exam used “as the sole metric for entrance into some of New York City’s elite public high schools.” Bellafante suggests that studying for such an exam may be too little too late, citing E.D. Hirsch’s belief that “there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.” Middle schoolers who did not have the benefit of talkative adults using interesting words will have a much harder time on the test.
An interesting follow up to Bellafante’s piece is Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny from the Core Knowledge blog. Pondiscio, the author, thankfully has two messages: good conversation can happen in any home, not just affluent ones. And that skill and drill (and kill) with vocabulary worksheets is not the answer. The answer lies within our frequent conversations filled with interesting words. And I would add “even if the camera is rolling.”