Partnering with parents to bridge the ‘word gap’

Published on Tuesday, 25 February 2020
Last updated on Monday, 07 September 2020

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The variation between children starting primary school compared to their peers is called the ‘word gap’, and while the reasons are hotly debated there are some strategies educators can share with families to grow a child’s vocabulary in the years before school.

“Language variation in children is complex and difficult to attribute to a single cause. Regardless of the causes, low levels of vocabulary set limits on literacy, understanding, learning the curriculum and can create a downward spiral of poor language which begins to affect all aspects of life,” says Lancaster University’s Professor of Language and Literacy Kate Cain, in the Oxford Language Report, Why Closing the Word Gap Matters.

The more extensive a young child’s vocabulary the better and this is because

  • A child’s vocabulary growth is directly linked to his or her overall school achievement 
  • The size of a child’s vocabulary in kindergarten predicts his or her ability to learn to read 
  • The more words a child knows, the more information the child has access to
  • Having a large vocabulary helps children think and learn about the world

Children learn words at a phenomenal rate in their early years. They learn when adults talk to them and listen to them, from conversations they hear, through interactions and from books read to them. Consequently, bridging the word gap is not a one-strategy approach rather it takes a collection of daily interactions. 

Within early childhood education services it’s helpful to create a ‘language rich’ environment where children are surrounded by talking, singing, and reading and have opportunities throughout their day, across all activities, to communicate with others and engage in back-and-forth conversations.

Strengthening these ‘in service’ approaches can be achieved by partnering with parents and carers to encourage them to create a ‘language rich’ environment in their home. Communicating to parents the importance of growing their child’s vocabulary is the starting point. Giving them the tools and ideas for achieving this is the next step and it’s important to relay that each child is different and there are variations in the rate a child’s vocabulary develops.

Support families by talking to them about… talking

Parents possess the ability to grow their child’s vocabulary and this power is embedded in the act of talking. Talking teaches, and by partnering with parents you can share with them how important their daily interactions are. Communicating to parents the ‘how to’ and ‘why it’s important’ will ensure they’re fully informed of how they can help build a child’s word knowledge. Remember, learning is empowering for parents especially when they understand how they can help to build their child’s mind.

Recognise that many families have busy and sometimes stressful lives, so make resources easy-to-use and focus on instilling confidence in parents and carers. Help parents feel comfortable with activities and how they can make a difference in their child’s learning. Share teaching tactics with parents such as:

  • Speaking clearly and at a reasonable pace
  • Repeating what the child has said, and expanding on it, e.g. ‘Yes, it’s a big RED car.’
  • Using simple language which is appropriate to the child’s level
  • Introducing a range of new words and explore alternative words with the same meaning
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Commenting on and describing what you are doing during activities

Suggest conversation starters and tips

For children who are talking, send home some ideas for conversations based on the child’s interest and classroom activities. Encourage parents to use everyday activities as opportunities for rich conversational talk such as when shopping, playing or reading. 

Conversation tips include:

  • Take it slow, encourage a back-and-forth exchange
  • Gain the child’s attention before speaking, and get down to the child’s level before starting a conversation
  • Listen patiently when a child speaks, giving them time to find the right words and make opinions known
  • If the child does not speak yet, tune into what they are doing or pointing to and use these moments to talk with them
  • Talk about what the child is doing, what the child is looking at, or what the child is interested in
  • Add words or questions to what the child says or does and model new language

Promote reading

The benefits of reading to children cannot be overstated and parents should be encouraged to read to their children every day. A recent study from America found young children whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than children who were never read to. This 'million word gap' could be one key in explaining differences in vocabulary and reading development.

While reading five books a day can sound a bit daunting, the researchers also discovered that kids who are read only one book a day will hear about 290,000 more words by age five than those who don't regularly read books with a parent or caregiver.

To help parents with the reading routine make books accessible to them. Discussion questions can also be included when sending home books to help start up a conversation.

Provide tips to parents on how to read to children, such as:

  • Be enthusiastic, fun and interactive – point out illustrations, ask questions and answer questions
  • Repeat words, multiple exposures to words improves word learning
  • Keep favourite stories in rotation as it can help increase a child’s ability to remember and retain words
  • Point at the words while reading and explain new words
  • Read with them not to them

References and further reading:

Talking is Teaching – For preschool teachers, Infant and toddler teachers and caregivers, and Tips for families.

First five years 

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