No, poor kids don't struggle in school because their parents have small vocabularies

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Almost every piece of research cited-by-link and thereafter taken as given and settled in that article is locked behind an academic paywall. The argument seems to be that framing a smaller vocabulary as a deficit is unfair and demeaning - one of the paywalls offers this explanation as a summary (of a text that I can’t read because I’m not a subscriber): ‘Describing the language patterns of families in poverty as inferior is linguistically false and culturally insensitive.’ That may be true, but it’s hardly a cogent argument about whether or not efforts to teach a more robust vocabulary are effective at improving outcomes for poor children.

Also - the article makes this assertion: “Low-income children are more likely than their higher-income peers to be in factory-like classrooms that allow little interaction and physical movement.” And again, while this may be true, the link that “proves” this is to an academic article, again locked behind a paywall, titled “Ways of Assessing Children and Curriculum: Stories of Early Childhood Practice,” which doesn’t seem to offer any research into whether classrooms for low-income children are “factory-like.”

Extremely poor journalism.


So, the article states that the problem is not vocabulary but the fact that these children aren’t spending enough time in discussion, etc. This makes sense to me especially because this is how I have been taught to deal with the word gap: teaching parents to talk to their children, engage them in discussion, read to them. Yes, I agree that this should happen in schools as well as in the home, but the information I have about the word gap problem has all been toward fixing this before school starts, which is why this article bothers me just a bit: No, the word gap problem is not necessarily a “poor kids” problem or the ONLY problem many kids are having, but it IS a problem and it is one that happens before school starts and ALL parents should be aware that giving their child a strong vocabulary as well as the keys to using that vocabulary are valuable assets.

Edit: I apologize for the rambling. It’s early and I’m uncaffeinated!


The best insight into why this might be for my money comes from this dude (prof of Economics at Harvard)

It’s a long talk, but a really good one, and basically makes the point that stresses - like lack of money - cause a telescoping of focus that leaves little cognitive room for much else. There’s no real reason to think that kids would be exempt form this (or from its effects on their parents).

Under that logic, poor kids struggle in school because they’re poor - they don’t really have time for academics when they’re worried about their next meal.


Some of it might be perception, too. Here’s my anecdata: I heard a story recently about a mom walking her 5-year-old daughter to school. They ran into one of the daughter’s friends and, thus, had to walk the rest of the way together as two mother-daughter pairs.

The friend’s from the low-income (well-kept, decently-funded, but always full) housing project. Talking with the little girl was easy: kids have far-ranging interests and you can drift from topic to topic with ease.

Talking with the friend’s mother, on the other hand, wasn’t so easy. Trying to bring down the language to a level where the response wasn’t just a blank stare… the mother told me that it was frustrating for her that she could talk more easily and at a higher “level” with her five-year-old than she could with that other woman.


An interesting lens through which to look at this is ESL. If ever there were a situation where it would be easy to fall into a trap of vocabulary drilling, that would be it, but even for kids for whom language acquisition has been identified as their “primary deficit,” authentic and experiential learning is still far and away the best approach.

I was a NYC teaching fellow in TESOL many years ago, and experienced the real gap that is holding back quality education - the gap between brilliant teacher educators and curriculum designers/marketers/school administrators. Our teacher training had some really smart, dedicated people in it teaching us all about project work, experiential learning, and group work. A fundamental text for us was “Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners” a book that emphasized using every possible way to help language learners engage with the same content-rich material that the other student were (ostensibly) engaging with. The aim was not to teach language directly, but to teach content-rich material and concepts, and help the students build the language they need to do so through appropriate activities.

Of course, as soon as my teacher training ended and I asked our administrator for support and materials I was handed an enormous, shiny, heavily marketed all-in-one, step-by-step “system” for language acquisition with bullshit edu-ware, mass produced “vocabulary-based” “stories” and cheap, bullshit cutouts, hastily written “songs” and a heavy reliance on the vocabulary board. The pages of the book were literally labelled “day 1, day 2, day 3” I was to use no other materials.

I would have complained more, but it was the same year the a Kaplan representative showed up and sold the school what was to become the general “english / lanuguage arts” curriculum for the coming year. Basically a test prep book full of context-free “passages” and multiple choice questions.


I want to know why grammar, punctuation, and spelling are all considered to be basically useless nowadays, and why when folks are corrected on mistakes in any one of those they get REALLY defensive. And I try to be as courteous as possible about it (part of being courteous is doing things in such a way that not only does one not lose their manners, it doesn’t cause the other person/s to lose theirs either).

I understand that a lot of laxity in those things are due to rapid-communication forms being more and more prevalent. But come ON - when you’re looking for a job online, is it really okay to have bad spelling just because you’re typing on a smartphone? (Edited; I’m trying not to reach for sharp instrument for a grammar error - one I personally despise - when commenting on the lack of use of good grammar. This is what I get, eh? I like my crow with BBQ sauce, by the way.)

It does begin in the home. And it doesn’t matter if one’s poor or not; my father was raised in the Great Depression (they were so poor, my grandfather did time in Jackson, MI prison for stealing food), and he had a great vocabulary. My mom grew up in the rural Thumb area of Michigan at the same time; she, too, has a great vocabulary.

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Linguist David Crystal notes that txtsp34k is only 10% of messages exchanged, and that simply writing so much is leading to a generation of humans better at writing. After all, practice makes perfect.

Oh, also:

s/your/you are/


Muphry’s Law?


Dagnabbit, I knew there was a law for it. I was just coming back to link it.

I have a couple of teachers in the family and the both of them have said the exact same thing. There’s a huge disconnect between those doing educational research (many of whom are teaching teachers), school administrators, and teachers. The administration’s desire to cut costs and streamline everything into something idiot-proof, when teaching is one of those jobs that cannot be done effectively by an idiot, hurts kids at every stage.


You’re claiming that it’s “extremely poor journalism” because the sources are behind pay walls?

You do realize that almost all citations in scientific journals are to other papers in scientific journals, which are alos “behind pay walls.” Also almost any quote attributed to any politician in any newspaper was found by a Lexus-Nexus search which, again, is behind a pay wall.

The existence of pay walls may be an annoyance for you, but if you doubt what the journalist said there’s nothing preventing you from buying a subscription and checking it out for yourself. Idem with any citation in any scientific journal. How other institutions monetize their articles doesn’t have much bearing on whether something is “poor journalism” or not.


It is quite possible that word count itself is not the source of academic problems, but it may well be a good proxy for it. But, like other proxies, it’s not fixable by trying to address that measurable problem itself.

It’s like all the studies that show a strong correlation between the amount that a child is read to and their later success in school and later. Some studies have actually made the correlation between the number of books in a house and a child’s abilities. So what does the State of Tennessee do? Send books to houses every month. As if the books sitting on shelves will magically cure the problem.

That kind of thinking is indeed horribly mixing up cause and effect (more affluent households read more books and speak more words to a child, and more affluent children do better in school).

All that said, without a citation there is no evidence that, as @doctorow claims, “pursuing project-based learning, experiential learning, and all those other rich (ahem) pedagogical approaches” is actually better for low-income students who don’t have supporting parents at home. You can’t just say it would work simply because it feels to you like it would.

Here in Boston, we’ve been experimenting with Montessori schools (project-based learning) in mixed-income elementary schools. I have a friend who teaches in one. She says that the gap between high-income and low-income students in increasing significantly in the school.

The advantaged kids, with their parents who have been teaching them how to read from age 2 and support them in many ways at home, etc., are doing great in the project-based environment. The disadvantaged kids, meanwhile, who don’t get that kind of focussed care at home, are falling way behind in reading and other skills.

Experienced-based learning is great, but the kids still need to know how to read. It’s easy when you have advantages to say “oh, that reading and math stuff isn’t so important.” But that’s simply not recognizing your privilege.


I’m saying the summaries that are available without paying of the research cited don’t support the conclusions that are being drawn from it. And from your other post I think we’re generally in agreement about this.

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I am not studying the education system – not an expert – but I always thought it was people sinking to a lower expectation level. These are broad strokes here I know, and I have no studies to back this up, but when kids are not expected to exceed academically they won’t. And I suspect it’s parents … and the teachers … and the families … and the community. I picture my own kids growing up and hearing from one of their parents "College? You think we can afford college? " and what that would do to their overall success – even at a young age.

Not to make this political, but maybe the rise in tuition costs is part of the problem and a “free” or at least affordable quality college level education system is in order ala Bernie Sanders. Meaning, if college were affordable maybe (and maybe it’s a stretch) you’d see high school dropout rates drop.

Again … this is speculative and not backed by anything – behind a paywall or free.


That’s how it’s done. But I’ll give you super-secret protip: Find the authors, use email, and ask nicely. You can get your hands on it for free. Shhhhhh.


I don’t think you can so easily use Montessori as a proxy for the larger concept of project-based learning though. I agree wholeheartedly with the thrust of your comment, but Montessori is at the opposite extreme end of the spectrum from vocabulary and discipline drilling. Taking a system designed for the children of highly educated, resource-rich parents, and just laying it over students with a completely different background is a recipe for failure. Modern teacher training is infused with the idea of “differentiated instruction” which, in it’s best incarnations, has students doing equivalently rich work, but with differing levels of support (scaffolding, as the parlance went in my day) in order to engage the material. It’s a difficult concept to master, and it requires intelligence, experience, careful planing and a true understanding of the needs of individual students, so in the American school system, it doesn’t often find it’s place, but it’s an essential concept in successful education.


Totally true. And people can be, and are, experimenting with all sorts of interesting instructional techniques that aren’t vocabulary drills, for all abilities. But I was explicitly warning against the rosy-vision that people like Cory often feel is intuitively right, which is that if we just gave disadvantaged kids all the super-creative “unschooling” stuff that affluent kids get, then the disadvantaged kids will get all those advantages.

  • Differences between the average capacities of most groups (for example, racial and economic groups) are far less than the variation between individual members of these groups. Therefore, while it is useful to measure group averages when formulating some types of policy, it is wrong and dangerous to ascribe weight to group characteristics when dealing with individuals.

  • Our physical bodies, including our genetic makeup, limit our capacities - you will never be a major league pitcher if you have no arms. However, nobody alive today has ever reached the physically determined limit of their intellectual capacities. Every one of us, from institutionalized vegetable to Nobel-winning scientist, could be more than we are, and the primary factors that have limited what we have achieved (in order) are luck, economics, and culture.

  • Poor kids do poorly in school for the same reason that they have poor vocabularies - it’s because they are poor. It’s popular today to claim that various other forms of privilege are to blame, but any real examination of the numbers always shows the same conclusion - it’s the economic factors that overshadow all others, and those same economic factors are what originally created and currently sustain the privileged classes. Recently papers have been published supporting the idea that the limiting effects of poverty start in the womb.


That’s certainly part of it. There was a famous study where researchers gave a bunch of kids tests, and then told the teachers that, based on the tests, certain kids were expect to soar academically. And those kids did, and had significantly increased scores in their IQ tests a year later. Yet those kids were actually chosen at random, and the only variable was the teachers being told that they would do well. (More in-depth here.)

The teacher built those random kids up and had high expectations for them — and the kids internalized this self-confidence — and it resulted in actual learning gains.

Meanwhile many black kids in the US internalize the stereotype that they won’t do well, and then don’t.