meaningful differences

Wow, yesterday’s post certainly touched a nerve.  That was the most hits I ever got on my blog, and the most comments.  So thank you, everyone, for being part of the conversation.

So the question is, how do preschool teachers strike a balance between helping their disadvantaged students get a great education and a leg up, and remaining true to early childhood principles without pushing an inappropriate curriculum on them?  At least, I think that is the question.  It’s a little hard to put into one brief sentence.  Or maybe that’s the glass of wine I had with dinner…

The whole thing brings me back to my favorite book on education, Meaningful Differences, by Hart and Risley.  I’ve written about it before, here (referring to an article about the book), here (talking to my 1 year old niece and nephew), and here (talking with my nephew at age 2).   Here’s what the publisher has to say:

Their painstaking study began by recording each month — for 2-1/2 years — one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or welfare families. Years of coding and analyzing every utterance in 1,318 transcripts followed. Rare is a database of this quality. “Remarkable,” says Assistant Secretary of Education Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, of the findings: By age 3, the recorded spoken vocabularies of the children from the professional families were larger than those of the parents in the welfare families. Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 300 words spoken per hour. Extrapolating this verbal interaction to a year, a child in a professional family would hear 11 million words while a child in a welfare family would hear just 3 million.

Did you get that one amazing sentence, about how the vocabularies of the three year olds in the professional families were larger than those of the parents in the welfare families?  When the kids then get to kindergarten, the poor kids have vocabularies of about 2,000 words.  Pretty good, huh?  Well, not when you compare that to the vocabularies of the professionals’ kids — they go to kindergarten with 20,000 words at their disposal.

That makes me sick to my stomach.  Then it makes my blood boil.  And after that, I roll up my sleeves and determine that MY students will have as many rich experiences and conversations as possible.  I do all I can to talk to them and listen to them and teach them about conversations, questions, answers, and discussion.  The inequality they face as a result of their families’ economic circumstances just gives me more reason to do everything I can to get them ready for kindergarten on an even ground with the more advantaged kids they will meet there.

So please keep in mind that I do not teach in the suburbs.  I don’t teach rich kids.  My view of preschool is shaped by my experiences in my urban district.  If I were to teach the kids of college-educated parents, I might have a different view entirely.

Although, knowing how opinionated and stubborn I am, maybe not!


3 thoughts on “meaningful differences

  1. I do work in a school where the parent population would be catergorized as upper to upper-middle class. They read articles about children in low income areas (Head Start, Ready Start, etc) getting “academics” in preschool and think their children need the same thing. But at home they are doing workbooks and leap pad and have computers and books and go places with their children. What they do not have are multiple siblings for their child to play with, they do not live in neighborhood where the children are in and out of one another’s homes, learning to get along with others. So, what our kids need it that social stuff, things that parents can’t or don’t want to replicate in their homes. I like this idea of meaningful differences.

    • Excellent point, Juliann. Privileged children have their own list of needs, that’s for sure. It reminds me of the birth to three hysteria a few years ago. YES, those are critical years, but the point was that poor children weren’t getting what they needed for later success, not that middle and upper-middle class parents needed to freak out about stimulating their babies and toddlers. Those kids WERE getting what they needed in the first years of life.

  2. That 20,000 seems way off.

    Based on previous research, Nation and Waring (1997) estimate that the receptive vocabulary size of a university-educated native English speaker is around 20,000 base words, while Goulden, Nation, and Read’s (1990) intervention indicates that the receptive vocabulary size range of college-educated native English speakers is 13,200 – 20,700 base words (Goulden, Nation, & Read, 1990), with an average of 17,200 base words.

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