April 5th, 2011

WATCH: Closing The Vocabulary Gap In Chicago Preschools

Children raised in poverty typically enter kindergarten less prepared than their middle class peers and often never catch up.  For these children — who struggle year after year — school can feel like a losing battle.  More than one million students drop out every year.  We visited Chicago this winter to see what educators are doing to stop the battle before it begins.

This aired on PBS NewsHour on April 5, 2011. Watch:

Download transcript (pdf)

This program is made possible by the following funders:
Grade Level Reading Fund of the Tides Foundation, The Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki Foundation, The Wallace Foundation, and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


PodcastThe Role of Sesame Street

42 years ago, when Sesame Street began, about 70 percent of kids stayed home before kindergarten. Today, the statistics are almost reversed — so how do Big Bird, Snuffy and the rest of the gang work for children now? Listen to the story.


PodcastMothers Looking For Balance

The preschool issues in Chicago — namely, a lack of options — have created a host of problems for working mothers; in this podcast, we explore three such situations in detail. Listen to the story.

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Unfortunately, this crucial issue is almost completely misunderstood by the experts and, I would guess, in the upcoming piece. The right preschool for vocabulary-deprived children can help, but it’s unnecessary and expensive. Research shows that providing the right K-2 environment is fully effective in closing the vocabulary gap and, of course, we are already paying for it. It’s a crime that the real story isn’t being told.

Hugh, I’d be interested in seeing that research. I’m very skeptical though, as the longer you wait, the bigger the problem gets, and the stronger the intervention required.

Let’s school parents on what to do with their children first. Parenting is sets the stage for going to pre-school and school. My wife and I are working with our 2 year old son every day: speaking, reading, art work, discipline in addition to going to preschool. I’m sure this is true for a huge number of Chicago families. Unfortunately there are children that do not benefit from parents who are actively engaged in their lives.

I am thinking that this would be a good cause and good show for Oprah’s new network. New parents are usually very focused on their new baby, and information by experts in child development until age 2 would be great. Brazelton, for one, was always excellent.

As a former teacher who studied extensively and practiced in the field, I have read the research and seen the children who come to school with the gap. If you wait until K-2, when children are supposed to work on reading skills such as decoding, and later fluency, you will be behind when children do not know how to hold a book, know what sounds the letters make, understand that we read from top to bottom and left to write, phonemic awareness and other pre-reading/pre-writing skills, in addition to having a large vocabulary to be able to participate and understand reading. In simpler terms, all of the conversations, questions, explanations, and reading help set the foundation for future reading and academic success. You cannot wait until K-2 to set that foundation.I look forward to viewing the program.

Hugh, are you talking about language development or another topic? And can you be more specific as which research has positive and which has inconsequential results? Also, what credentials do you possess which segregate you from the “experts” which misunderstand this “critical issue”, though I am not clear which topic you are addressing.

I must agree with Amy and disagree with Hugh about the importance of Early Childhood Education - is it essential to start in early childhood with low-income children especially seeing as how the majority of middle- and upper-income children DO have high quality preschool experiences which means that the achievement gap is getting increasingly WIDER before children have even started kindergarten and will just continue to expand. I’m happy to pass along of these research about the impact and IMPORTANCE of high quality ECE on the long-term effects for children from low-income communities.

All the research I’ve read - plus my own experience tutoring reading to first graders, primarily those learning English and those without any preschool experience, exposes this yawning gap in LIFE experience. These children learn decoding and comprehensions skills pretty predictably, but those are lower order skills on Bloom’s Taxonomy. What distinguishes these learners, it seems to me, is that they are at a remarkable disadvantage from continuing constrained life experiences, so that fluidity and flexibility, the ability to take multiple perspectives (enhanced by a larger vocab)and other forms of abstract thinking becomes “the bridge too far.” If there is research showing that intervention at the K-2 level can have the impact that early childhood intervention has in terms of higher order thinking, is scalable, and is as cost effective, I’d be very curious to read it. Please do share!

I do agree with Galewood. Primary educators are parents and if parents doesn’t engage much to their children’s life, school and teachers won’t make any difference and miracle for their achievement. It is a two way traffic.

Over 60% of mothers of young children are in the workforce so we have to assure quality early care and education for the children in care outside and inside the home.

“A program like EduCare” might describe HeadStart (sometimes, in some situations, and in some conditions, it doesn’t). I’m surprised that you didn’t cite the High Scope studies on HeadStart, and urge more and better research on similar interventions. There’s loads of data: “for some children, 2 1/2 hours a day is enough” - is an invitation to better diagnostics, more productive matching, and more responsive means of measuring and documenting “return on investment.”

The reason I cite High Scope is it’s invention of a positive metric like years of special education avoided by a timely, early intervention. Nobody - including Learning Matters - seems to think that those measures, reflected in prevention, and precluding much, much more expensive treatments - from SPED to jail. The way to pry more money out of a tight Congress is not through sympathy; it’s through a sharp, articulate measure of how much certain cuts cost, in dollars and sense, in short and medium term.

Many years ago I worked with a brilliant teacher who coined an aphorism appropriate to this debate: “I teach kids how to learn things. If you want kids to get a warm feeling, tell ‘em to pee their pants.” Beware the sympathetic syllogism.

Any experienced teacher knows that the achievement gap is well established and difficult to ameliorate once the child arrives in kindergarten. Books such as The Meaning Makers by Gordon Wells provide us with valuable insight into how the gap happens. Unless we address the informal education that occurs during the critical first five years of a child’s life, we’re not going to see much improvement for our least advantaged children.


We really appreciate all the comments on this piece. Keep them coming.


Learning Matters

I am wondering about the quick dismissal of the interpretation of experts, with no mention of EVIDENCE that conflicts with the findings of such experts. Can the speaker him/herself be very advanced in his/her critical thinking skills? Actually, I am in the field of teaching and learning and have not, myself, yet found any research that seriously doubts the findings reported by experts in the field of cognitive development during the pre-school years. So, let us, as supporters and interlocutors on such matters follow standards established in and by experts in higher education on what constitutes a legitimate claim in such discussions as we are engaged in on this platform.

This is exactly what I’ve been saying for years, you can’t close that gap when the kids enter school, speech and language acquisition is imperative from day one! We need to get this message understood by our policy makers….

Teachers have been saying this for years: there’s already a huge education gap when students walk into the first day of kindergarten, and that gap tends to widen over time. As one of the California teachers in my dissertation research noted, the students who are ahead tend to work faster and do their homework, while the students who are behind can’t/won’t do homework (some lived in small houses that housed several families), and they need more time in class to get work done.

Teachers are only given a finite amount of time and resources to work with a large number of students, but they’re often blamed for their failure to “close the gap” that confronts them.

What a well done video! All the information is absolutely true and we need to convince the state, the government and funders that 0-5 are the crucial years. If children do not get a good foundation they will fall and we will fail. Early intervention with language, social skills, and

I looked at the piece regarding the preschoolers in Chicago. Studies show, and I concur from observation, that children from low income homes and parents without a high school diploma uses fewer words when they enter kindergarten than other children with higher parental education and income levels. I have observed this group of parents often uses more commands when speaking with their children than conversation and because they are usually poor readers themselves, they often do not read to their young children. These factors have an adverse affect on the children’s vocabulary,reading and decoding skills. Reading to young children doesn’t cost much but has priceless results.

It is amazing how the government and some people do not get the fact that early education is so valuable and that it would in fact save lots of money and produce working citizens who contribute to society. The facts state that prisons, crime, and all the cost associated with this would cost a lot more than adding to the cost of early education. It is so important for these politicians to lobby for and to invest in children, espcially as the very early stages.

It is important not only for childhood educators but everyone to know how Early Childhood Programs benefits everyone. We need to be Advocates for all children. We want to start all the children with the same advantage that early education gives them. It has been proven that early childhood education has reduced the achievement gap over decades. The children have more Cognitive and social skill thought out the schooling and become more productive adults.
We need to remember that the children are our future. We need to help them gain the skills and knowledge. We all need to realize that the lower income families are the ones that really need Early Childhood Education and Parenting Programs. As teachers, and caring individuals we need to help these families in any way we can. There are so many resources that we can give them. What we need to close the Achievement Gap is MONEY, Money that the government is not willing to spend on our children. That is so sad to say, but it is true…………….

I think that the government should start more funding to get kids from lower income families better schooling, all kids have the right to be educated, yet our government doesn’t always act as if that’s true.

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