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McNeff: Thirty Million Words by Age Four

By Staff | May 8, 2015

Is it the environment or the genetic makeup that defines a child’s achievement level?

The environment may play a larger role in regard to student achievement than anticipated. According to Shenk (2010) genetic factors do exist and they interact with environmental factors, but genetic factors are not straightjackets that hold us in place. We are beginning to understand the significance of early exposure to literacy. Hart and Risley (1995) found some children heard thirty million more words than other children by age four. They followed forty-two families for more than three years and took samples of the number of words spoken in their homes. These families represented three income brackets: welfare, working class, and professional. According to Shenk, “Children in professionals’ homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes” (2010). Children who heard more words were better prepared for school than others. These same children were followed into the third grade and researchers found that they had larger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and achieved higher. This indicates that the achievement gap can remain even after formal schooling. This research further supports the importance of early literacy for kids.

Shenk recommends the following triggers that influence student achievement: speak to children early and often, read early and often, nurture and encourage, set high expectations, embrace failure, and encourage a growth mindset. One of the initiatives of the Thirty Million Words Project is early intervention. In Chicago, they are beginning at birth. The project is emphasizing more parent-child talk beginning as soon as the child is born. Some think that reading to an infant is a waste of time because they cannot understand. It is not about their understanding it is more about the exposure to many different words over time.

Early literacy is the key to future academic success. The best thing we can do is read to our children every night. As someone who has four children under the age of seven I know that this is difficult at times. Try to make a commitment to reading at least 15-30 minutes a night to your children and remember it is never too early to start.

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