Early struggles in vocabulary development can hamper economically disadvantaged children

April 10, 2001

University Park, Pa. -- When socioeconomically deprived children fall behind in spoken vocabulary development during their first three years of life, they are very likely to have lifelong struggles in all their studies in school. Even current early intervention programs such as Head Start may not be enough to close this learning gap, says a Penn State researcher.

"Those children in our society who grow up in poverty or near poverty are adversely affected by their mother's own vocabulary deficit during their earliest years when they are learning to speak at home," says Dr. George Farkas, professor of sociology.

"Social class differences in vocabulary growth emerge at the very earliest ages among both Black and White Americans, and they attain a substantial magnitude by 36 months of age," Farkas notes. "These social class differences widen during the fourth and fifth years of life, although this occurs more strongly among African-Americans than among Whites. Half of the social class differences in vocabulary growth rates can be traced to the differences in family linguistic instruction provided by mothers of varying social classes."

By the time children reach age 6 and the first grade, they are learning to read, and from that point their vocabulary development, regardless of class or race, proceeds roughly at the same pace. Unfortunately for disadvantaged children, their earlier deficiencies in vocabulary learning will continue to have long-term repercussions in their teenage years, especially in the areas of vocabulary, reading and mathematics.

In adult years, the consequences are often low-skill and poorly paid jobs that perpetuate the cycle of poverty, according to Farkas, a faculty member in Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts and a faculty associate with Penn State's Population Research Institute.

Farkas and Dr. Kurt Beron of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, presented their findings, "Family Linguistic Culture and Social Reproduction: Verbal Skill from Parent to Child in the Preschool and School Years," recently at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in Washington, D.C.

Between 1986 and 1996, data were collected from several thousand children between the ages of 3 and 14, including the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), comprised of 175 increasingly difficult words. The tester read the word to the child, who then pointed to one of the 4 pictures that best described its meaning. When the child failed to identify 6 out of 8 consecutive items, the test ended, and the child was assigned a score or "ceiling."

"By analyzing these data according to the child's month of age, beginning at 36 months, we were able to examine the trajectory of oral vocabulary growth by social class in unprecedented detail," Farkas notes.

The researchers also compared the child's progress in vocabulary development with the mother's "linguistic cultural capital" as determined by the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). Given to this particular sample of women in 1980, the AFQT measures skills and habits of vocabulary and speech.

"It is not enough that the mother herself have a good vocabulary," the Penn State researcher says. "It is also necessary for mothers to teach letters to their babies, talk out loud to them and read books to them regularly and consistently. "This is much less likely to happen when the mother is trapped on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and is consumed by financial and emotional pressures or stresses, he adds.

The authors conclude that federal and local programs and policies must be aimed at improving the early vocabulary development and school readiness skills of children from low-income households. In particular, the Bush administration's emphasis on improving the letter, sound, word recognition and pre-reading skills instruction provided by Head Start and similar programs is well-targeted on an important instructional area, which is vital to the schooling success of low-income children, Farkas notes.
EDITORS: Dr. Farkas is at 814-865-6428 at gfarkas@pop.psu.edu by email.

Penn State

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