Children who come to school with a small vocabulary are already behind. Beore day one. We have known this for a long time… In fact, I remember how startled I was when I first learned of this gap.

See, e.g., the 2003 longitudinal studies by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, showing that by age 3, youngsters from language rich (generally well-to-do) families have a working vocabulary of 1116 words, children from working class families have a 749 word vocabulary, and children from families receiving welfare have a 525 word vocabulary.

After all these years of efforts and reforms, that gap is not closing. Efforts by schools to close that key language gap–between those who have many words and those with few–have not done the trick. Calls for more instruction? I’m dubious about their efficacy.

Instead, I suggest we look at these children’s homes to help parents understand the importance of language and of speaking with their young children. I wonder how many parents understand this critical aspect of raising young children. I suspect that many do not and that they would be appreciative if efforts were made to inform them and suggest how they might create language- rich environments in their homes. And how important that would be in helping their children in school. I suggest we may get farther with this approach than with the usual one of asking (demanding) that schools close so many gaps for so many children–even before they come to school.

As I watch my almost two-year old granddaughter speaking with an ever increasing vocabulary–I can only think how wonderful it would be if more children could grow up in language-rich environments. Let us focus on that!

About Miriam

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA—an expert in public education, focused on special education law— is a lawyer, author, speaker, consultant, and reformer. For more than 35 years, Miriam worked with educators, parents, policy makers, and citizens to translate complex legalese into plain English and focus on good practices for children. Now, she focuses her passion on reforming special education, with her new book, Special Education 2.0—Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law. Presentations include those at the AASA Conference, Orange County (CA), Boston College (MA), CADRE (OR), and the Fordham Institute (DC). Her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Education Week, Education Next, Hoover Digest, The University of Chicago Law Review on line,, and The Atlantic Monthly on line.

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