The 30 Million Word Gap
Betty Hart PhD and Todd Risley PhD discovered that children from the homes of socio-economically disadvantaged parents heard, on average, 30 million fewer uses of language than their middle class and upper middle class peers by the time they were three.
They called this discrepancy the 30 Million Word gap. This lack meant that the brain did not develop a complex enough understanding of language and a hidden ceiling was created in the brain. As the children got older and began facing more complicated literature it was discovered that they could not cope with it well.
The results were as follows…..
A lack of being able to synthesize complex language
A lack of being able to comprehend complex literature
A lack of being able to comprehend technical information
The gap continues to widen and there is no way to actually catch up.
They did note that you could force language acquisition by doing ‘role play’ activities like the bank game, but the amount of work it would take to get people to incorporate all the language they needed that way would be impossible.
Likewise it would be impossible after the age of three to use all the ‘proper kinds’ of interactive language with kids to have them catch up to their peers.
Keep in mind they were working with a limited number of families and though they could extrapolate their results and chart their predictions and those predictions were born out, they do not claim to have all the answers for populations they did not study such as rural populations or Non-English speaking people.
They were discouraged that this gap could ever be closed because of the amount of work that would be needed at the beginning of a person’s life. It is much too expensive. They say the technology exists to target this generation of children if someone was willing to fund it.
Hart and Risley noted that when they used the interactive play model, children were able to synthesize the language.
Storytelling creates a contextual link for language along the lines of the bank game. Children can learn all sorts of things if you put them into a story. Just as they took on characters in the bank game and went through the motions of being in the bank, so to do stories allow children to imagine and live in characters.
Little children like to hear the same stories over and over again and many times they will act them out as you tell them or take on their favorite parts.
Storytelling increases their exposure to language, helps them examine social interactions between people and engages their imagination. Children will retell a story that they like and if they like it enough, they can easily be encouraged to act it out and many times will do that without prompting.
Children want to be the witch or the dragon or the prince or princess. All of this contributes to imaginative play with is a very big piece in the race to help children acquire language skills on their way to becoming literate.
Andrew Biemiller does not agree that significant intervention cannot occur after the age of three. He says that it is possible to overcome the language discrepancy, but our current system of education is not set up to deal with it.
We teach children using basic words and concepts until the fourth grade and then we expect kids to jump into complex concepts and language. Without proper preparation children hit a kind of ceiling in fourth grade with has been called the fourth grade slump. Many of them have a hard time catching up.
We need to spend time infusing our curriculum with language from the beginning to get kids acclimated to more complex language.
He also noted that children learn language by watching our faces and looking at our body language until the time they hit puberty. They are watching for cues to tell them how words and phrases are used.
Biemiller believes in the theory that students do not reach proficiency with writing as well as they read and speak until about the seventh grade or puberty. After puberty, a student’s brain integrates all of these functions.
Storytelling allows the instructor to use all sorts of complex language. The words, when heard in context allow the child or early adult to not only hear the words, but also get an understanding of how the words can be used.
Because people continue learning by looking at faces and bodies, telling stories where you have them staring at your face as you talk actually improves their ability to assimilate the words you are using. They will have more ability to absorb language from watching you than they will from reading it in the text book or looking at pictures.
The introduction of storytelling at all grade levels allows you to use language the children may not have in their vocabularies. Using words they do know around words they do not know is a way to help their brains learn how to use context. If they get used to listening to the surrounding material to help them figure out what a word is, when they finally get into reading, they will have developed the skill of using the context of the material to help them figure out meaning.
Reading books to children they cannot read themselves is an important part of creating literate children, but telling them stories using language they are only vaguely familiar with also helps them as they read the teller for cues both contextually and physically.
E. D. Hirsh Jr. Postulates this theory
The Three Types of Language Needed to Master the Skill of Reading
1) Aural – Language you hear but don’t use
2) Oral – Language you use
3) Experiential – Language you figure out by context or past experiences
1) Aural Language
Aural Language is the language you hear but don’t necessarily use. Most people know that the word octogenarian means someone who is eighty years old, but it is not a word we use in conversation. In writing, however, authors may use a word like this on paper. If you have never heard it nor seen it, this word will stop reading in its tracks.
Most children have heard words they do not use. That’s fine they need to hear them even if they can’t use them as of yet.
The word bitter is an example of this.
2) Oral Language
Oral Language is the language that you pull out for everyday use. For instance, you don’t tend to use the word forlorn in everyday conversation. You might say someone was extremely upset or sad. The word forlorn is not part of most people’s oral language.
A word that is not part of your aural language cannot be part of your oral language.
3) Experiential Language
Experiential language is the ability to extrapolate the meaning out of a word based on past experiences with the word. An example would be the word bitter. Most children do not use the word bitter as part of their oral language, though it is stored in their aural language. If they are reading and they get to a sentence like this:
The old man was bitter.
They must use their knowledge of the word and try to make out what is meant. It is obvious that someone didn’t go up to the old man and lick him, so what can bitter mean in this sentence?
No word that is not part of your aural language can be part of your experiential language.
Comprehension occurs when a person is able to do several things simultaneously.
First, the brain takes in the way the text is presented and if a structure exists upon which to ‘hang’ the literature, it is activated. In other words, what kind of text is this? What can I expect? Then, as the information is fed into the brain, the steps are as follows:
A-They read a sentence and make an image in their mind.
B-The next sentence might confirm their image or not. They must decide if they are on the right track. They either add to the image or they must construct a new image. Meanwhile, they predict what they expect to happen next.
C-The next sentence either enhances their image or shifts it. The reader strengthens their image and predicts what’s going to happen next. Meanwhile the reader is still keeping all the information that has been given so far in their brain.
This is the process of comprehension. If a person does not comprehend, it means one or more of these processes does not function.
When you teach someone how to comprehend, you must focus on all of these elements.
There are many different ways to approach teaching people to comprehend and there are lots of great books about it. They are primarily books about teaching struggling readers.
All of the strategies are about helping children and young adults break down the elements of comprehension and walk through them one at a time until their brains learn to do it automatically.
This is the obvious one. Listening to stories makes a child or adult’s brain go through the motions of comprehension automatically. A person who is listening to a story doesn’t have any other stimulus other than the teller’s face and voice.
The process of going through the words and predicting is something that their brains learn through lots and lots of repetition of telling stories.
Traditional tales help the brain learn how to process literature.
3 little pigs
Children learn the rhythms of the story and their brains learn what to expect. When they begin to read stories like this, they know what is going to happen. They have a ‘framework’ around which to hang the story.
Early stories for children employ a lot of repetitive language with only a few changes each time.
I.e. The Squeaky Door, Epaminandus, Sody Saluradus
Repetition of the framework helps the burgeoning reader learn the shape and structure of a story. Longer stories help them organize more information.
Readers who are ready for more complex idea storage can handle stories with more interesting and diverse characters and they should be able to keep more plot elements in their brains at one time.
Older readers can follow a large number of ideas and you don’t need any repetition at all.
Even though this is a good way to look at stories, it doesn’t mean older students don’t like stories with repetition.
Telling to students of all ages and grades is a good way to continually reinforce the structure of stories, and it helps when they encounter material in print. Their brains have a way of approaching the text.
Storytelling is amazing practice for the brain in helping a student learn the process of comprehension.
Storytelling clubs are also great for this.
-Aural Language—Storytelling allows for the child to hear the language and store the words in the aural language.
-Rhythms of Language—Children learn language by listening to others and watching their bodies. Learning the rhythm of language helps when reading. Dr. Seuss is a master of rhythm. I also encourage ‘presenting’ poetry out loud to kids.
-Contextual Language—Stories help a child figure out that you can use the words you know to figure out the words you don’t know; a key skill in reading.
-Imagination Building—Storytelling propels the imagination forward because the listener is ‘forced’ to use their own images as they listen to the story.
-Vocabulary Building—Using dynamic language in a story helps children get used to complex language and it is much less threatening when they encounter it in a book.
-Learning Through Fun—Entertainment and play are the most effective ways to teach people just about anything. If it isn’t fun, most people don’t enjoy doing it. Storytelling makes books and literature fun.
-Experiential Language—Students can learn about other places, animals, people, cultures and customs by listening to stories. It will help them put their reading into context. Stories are a great way to meet people and find out more about them.
-Building Oral Language—Having students tell as well is a way of forcing them to find interesting language and use different ways to describe things. Increasing the amount of language a person is used to using expands the accessibility of literature because the person will have more familiarity with the language.
-It Helps Build Focus—Students will sit and listen to a story for a very, very long time if they are entertained. Helping them build the same kind of imaginative and comprehensive skills when they are reading as when they are writing is a key in getting them to want to sit and read.
-Teaches the process of Comprehension—It encourages the brain to constantly consider the material and revise as well as predict.
Young children have a hard time with this since they live in the moment, but by second grade, students should be honing this skill.
Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children. Hart, Betty PhD & Risley Todd R. PhD. Paul H Brookes Publishing Co. inc. (latest reprint 2000)
Reading Research to Practice: A Series for Teachers. Biemiller, Andrew PhD. Brookline Books. 1999
The Schools We Need: Why We Don’t Have Them. Hirsch, E D Jr. PhD. Doubleday. 1996
Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop. Zimmerman, Susan, Keene, Ellin Oliver. Heinemann Publishers. 1997
Strategies that work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding. Harvey, Stephanie. Goudvis, Anne. Stenhouse Publishers. 2000.
Multicultural folktales in the classroom
The Shortest Distance Between
Two People is a Story
Presented by Carrie Sue Ayvar and Donna Washington
The tales we share create a sabroso -delicious- stew that bring us all to
the table to celebrate each unique flavor.
Stories are an integral part of all cultures. Throughout time, societies all over the world have told stories as a way of passing on their beliefs, traditions, and history. Stories tell of our customs, our geography, even of the foods we eat. Listening to folk and fairy tales helps develop cultural sensitivity, awareness, and appreciation of our own as well as other ethnicities. This can be the basis for better communication and understanding of the rich variety of ideas, religions and languages that are different from one's own.
Stories have clues or markers that color them and inform us about the peoples that created them.
Place – village, jungle, marketplace, palace, city, etc.
Time – Christmas, Day of the Dead, harvest festival, etc.
Food – tortillas, rice cakes, tropical fruits, poi, kimchi, etc.
Characters – Rabbi, coyote, lion, king, Sultan, Emir, etc.
Messages – values and beliefs that are part of the cultural viewpoint.
How to pick a good multicultural tale
Find a story that is right for you, one that sparks your imagination. Read or listen to several versions, if you can. It should be a story that you really like and fits your own style.
Look for a narrative that isn’t so steeped in its own culture that someone from outside of it won’t be able to follow the story.
Try to find a tale that allows you to talk about the culture including, of course, cultural markers, but not one that requires a huge amount of explanation.
A story with familiar ties to your own culture can anchor the story and help you present it with a sense of ownership.
Find the "heart" of the story. Decide what is the most important part and what it means to you. Identify the essence of the story for yourself.
Tips for presenting tales
Outline it. Map it either pictorially or verbally. What comes first, second or third. Beginning, middle and end.
Visualize it. See the story clearly in your mind. Then the listener will too. Keep in mind such things as the main character, setting, time, other characters, mood, and emotions.
Memorize only important phrases or rhymes. Use your own words, your own rhythm, and your own manner.
Think about how you want to introduce or present the story. Think about place & time including where, when and in what context. Is there some personal experience that you could use to identify with this culture? How can you use this experience to bring life to your telling?
Use your voice to color the story. Fill it with expression. Think of what mood or tone you want to convey. Vary the tempo, the speed at which you speak and your volume. Remember the no in monotone!
Pauses - Use them! Ponder the power of pauses. A story is more than just individual words. It is a sum of all it's parts. Don’t be afraid to take a breath… and pause for effect.
Utilize gestures and movement to help communicate what your words are saying. Be aware of eye contact, posture, “body talk”.
When using dialects and accents, make sure you are being respectful. When in doubt, don’t!
Costuming can add but can also easily distract. Make sure that whatever props or costuming you introduce is not distracting. Find words to paint the scene and bring it to life.
Using storytelling as a multicultural bridge
Stories become bridges when they allow you to look at another culture and see the similarities as well as understand the differences. Our differences are often huge, but our basic human needs are the same. Cultural differences are the result of different groups addressing the same human foibles. Letting this human sameness be the basis for stories is usually a good start. Folktales are often beliefs in action. Learn about the background and try to understand the story from its cultural perspective. Be careful as you choose stories for sometimes they are not about what they appear to be at first.
Resources - a sampling of multicultural storytelling resources. An excellent source for cross- cultural folktales is, of course, section 398.2 of your local library.
A Pride of African Tales by Donna Washington. HarperCollins 2004
Earth Care: World Folktales to Talk About by Margaret Read MacDonald. Linnet Books, 1999
Wonder Tales from Around the World by Heather Forest. August House, 1995
Favorite Folktales from Around the World edited by Jane Yolen. Pantheon, 1986
More Ready-To-Tell Tales from Around the World Edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney, August House, 2000
Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another retold by Peninnah Schram. Jason Aronson Inc., 1987
Keepers of the Earth by Michael J. Caduto and Joe Bruchac. Fulcrum, Inc. 1988
Multicultural Folktales: Stories to Tell Young Children by Judy Sierra & Robert Kaminski. Oryx Press, 1991
Thirty-Three Multicultural Tales to Tell by Pleasant DeSpain. August House
How Many Spots Does A Leopard Have? And Other Tales by Julius Lester. Scholastic Inc., 1989
Momentos Mágicos/Magic Moments by Olga Loya. August House, 1997
Posted with the kind permission of Janice Del Negro