Part 4—The gaps come early and often: How do some American kids get a head start on their literacy?
On Monday, New York Times readers were given a delightful portrait of this process. In an essay on the op-ed page, Pamela Druckerman introduced us to her 5-year-old twins.
This mother’s boys are 5 years old. They share a World Cup obsession:
DRUCKERMAN (6/9/14): At dinner recently, one of my 5-year-old twins announced that he intended to learn Croatian.In fairness, these kids are already 5. They already go to school at some level. But in this delightful, tongue-in-cheek report, Druckerman describes the giant head start they’re getting on their literacy.
This didn’t surprise me. Mealtimes at our house have become low-level colloquia on international affairs. Often I play resident expert as the children fire questions at me: What language do they speak in Korea? Is Barcelona a country? Does someone in our family live in Iran?
Honestly, my kids used to talk about superheroes. But two months ago, my husband bought them each a World Cup sticker album. Within a week, they were full-blown soccer fanatics. They now trot off to school wearing soccer shirts, beg to watch matches the moment they get home and fall asleep clutching their albums.
These kids get to fire off questions at dinner—and their questions get answered! And look at the language, the knowledge and concepts they’re gaining in the course of pursuing their new obsession.
They know there’s a place called Croatia—and that the people there speak “Croatian.” Complex language is flying around and entering 5-year-old heads:
DRUCKERMAN: [A]ctually watching small Americans (albeit Americans in Paris, who call the game “football”) hatch into fanatics has made me realize that a World Cup obsession is different from, say, being nuts about the Yankees. That’s because the World Cup doesn’t just give you a sport; it also gives you the world.Most people in Brazil are Brazilians! Elsewhere, you find Uruguayans.
Of course, the World Cup view of the world isn’t entirely accurate...My kids are convinced that Uruguayans are mostly cheaters and even biters, because last year a Uruguayan playing for Liverpool was suspended for biting his opponent. They’re also fuzzy on some of the historical details we’ve discussed.
“What’s the name again of the team that invaded Mozambique?” one of the twins asked.
“Portugal,” I replied. “And it’s not a team, it’s a country.”
Anyway, the tournament isn’t just a history and geography lesson. It also gives kids a feeling of mastery. When one of the boys recently declared that “most people in Brazil are Brazilians,” it wasn’t just a profound statement of truth...It was also his way of organizing life into a coherent story.
A great deal of sophistication is being imparted in these discussions—and it isn’t just knowledge about history and geography, some of which may be bogus. These kids are gaining verbal sophistication too—for example, the knowledge that a particular type of word, “Brazilian,” derives from the word Brazil.
At 5, American children are just starting their official “school” years. But large gaps of various types already exist by the age of 5, or even at eighteen months (details tomorrow).
This fact has become better understood in recent years. In the current Education Week, former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin refers to one of the best-known such gaps—the “30 million word gap:”
FRANKLIN (6/11/14): With the benefit of hindsight, if I were to assume the job of mayor today, I would use the bully pulpit to immerse myself in every public discussion about K-12 education...The so-called “30 million word gap” is in place by age 3. It has nothing to do with the work of our teachers, our schools or our school districts.
I would focus on early learning. Research shows that children growing up in low-income households hear approximately 30 million fewer words than children growing up in middle-income and affluent families by the time they reach their 4th birthday. I would find a way to guarantee every 3- and 4-year-old child access to high-quality early education.
Mayor Angel Taveras of Providence, R.I., had the right idea when he launched Providence Talks to close this gap. The reality is that if we want our teenagers to graduate from high school ready for college or career, we have the responsibility to start them on the right course by preparing our earliest learners for kindergarten.
It has nothing to do with children’s exposure, or lack of exposure, to the Common Core “standards.” This very large gap is firmly in place before kids go to school.
Does it matter if children from low-income families “hear approximately 30 million fewer words than children growing up in middle-income and affluent families?” More specifically, does this early gap affect their future literacy?
We can’t really answer that question, in part because we live in a world which doesn’t really care a great deal about our “achievement gaps.”
When these large gaps get cited in the press, it’s usually in a narrow context and for a narrow purpose. The comment will usually be designed to drive some elite script about the way our test scores are stagnant and our schools are failing—and, therefore, about our need for “education reform.”
In fact, our most reliable test scores aren’t stagnant at all, but you’ll almost never see that reported in the press. In a similar vein, you’ll rarely read about the “30 million word gap” or about efforts, like Providence Talks, to close that early gap.
You won’t read much about this gap, or about those efforts, in the mainstream press corps. But this mammoth disinterest suffuses the “liberal” world too.
You won’t read about Providence Talks at Salon, or hear it discussed on MSNBC. Nor will you encounter discussions of that large word gap.
You won’t be taught to worry about the 3-year-olds who are on the short end of that gap. Such concerns barely exist in the “liberal world” as it currently operates.
The liberal world cares about gays who want to marry (that’s good!). But it doesn’t care about low-income children, whether they’re 3, 5 or 6. No fact could possibly be more clear. We liberals quit on low-income kids a very long time ago.
For today, let’s leave it here, with a bit of a study in contrasts. On the one hand, we have a pair of 5-year-olds who are bathed in a world of language, including some rather complex language. (That’s good!)
On the other hand, we have Mayor Franklin mentioning a very large gap which is in place by age 3 or age 4. She seems to think that this early gap affects the future prospects of the kids who are on its short end.
Tomorrow, we’ll explore her reasons for thinking that. Next week, we’ll return to the very large gaps in Tuscaloosa. We’ll look at the ways those gaps were recently spun within a world, which, if we might be so frank, doesn’t seem to give a flying falafel about the prospects of low-income kids.
What is the 30 million word gap? Why did Mayor Franklin cite it?
According to Nexis, the 30 million word gap has never been mentioned on any network news program, not even under its simpler description as “the word gap.” According to Nexis, it has never been mentioned on MSNBC.
According to Nexis, Providence Talks has been mentioned on major news program only twice, both times on NPR.
Rightly or wrongly, that early “word gap” has been considered a big deal since 1995. But within our mainstream press corps, our very large gaps exist for one reason—to drive preferred scripts from wealthy elites about the need for “reform.”
Within the current liberal world, those gaps barely exist at all. Kids on the short end of those gaps can go hang. We walked away long ago.
Tomorrow: Anne Frank in kindergarten