10/09/2012 05:01 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

The Word Deficit Begins Earlier Than at Age 4


I don't know if anyone noticed the article in the past Sunday's New York Times, but it's indicative of what I see far too often.

A recent New York Times article struck a familiar chord with me. Ginia Bellafante's reports on what one principal who serves a poor community called "the word deficit" -- the gap between the number of words a low-income kindergartner knows compared to what their more affluent peers have learned in their preschool years. As Hart and Risley postulated in their landmark study, children of professionals might hear, on average, more than 32 million words by age 4 than do children growing up in poverty.

This disparity, Bellafante reports, has come to light with a recent controversy involving an entrance test to New York City's elite public high schools, where children of poverty are consistently underrepresented. Realizing that many low-income children face great challenges in scoring well on this test, particularly in reading comprehension, the New York Education department has volunteered to offer free exam preparation to low-income students looking to attend this prestigious schools.

I agree with Bellafante that this approach is "myopic." I too have found evidence of what Bellafante neatly terms a "poverty of words." In our study of contrasting neighborhoods, one of privilege and one of poverty, I found that preschool children from the more affluent area heard about 2,435 words during an average hourly visit to the library, all as a result of adults reading to them. During the same period, I found not one single adult reading to their child in the neighborhood of poverty. By my estimates, children in the privileged neighborhood heard nearly 14 times the number of words in print than did those in poverty.

Things must change if we want to prepare low-income children to compete with their more affluent peers for entrance to these prestigious schools. Grooming low-income children to gain entrance to the best schools must begin much earlier, in the vital preschool years. We must focus our attention on increasing the knowledge and vocabulary of our neediest children BEFORE they start kindergarten. Once they start, the "word deficit" will only continue to grow, leaving low-income children once again without a fighting chance to keep up with their more advantaged peers. You'll see what we mean when you take a look at our new book, "Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance."