Building Better Kids, Vocabulary Edition

Over at City Journal, E.D. Hirsch argues that the most important function of education is vocabulary development:

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

….Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.”

….Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems.

I don’t actually have an independent opinion about this, but my mother, the former fourth-grade teacher turned ESL teacher, has become convinced that vocabulary is indeed the single most important key to learning. So I’m linking to this article for her. If Mom says vocabulary development is key, then by God, I’m going to make you all read about it.

So how do we go about building vocabulary? Hirsch has a bunch of suggestions, but here’s one that leapt out at me:

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects. A very early start, followed by systematic elementary schooling, can erase much of the achievement gap, though the payoff isn’t fully apparent until the later grades—a delayed effect that is to be expected, given the slowness and cumulativeness of word-learning.

Well. This certainly appeals to my biases. No, wait. Let’s say that in a more sophisticated way. My Bayesian priors suggest that these aren’t just spurious correlations, but plausibly causal agents. Vocabulary, baby!

(But seriously. There really is a lot of evidence that learning during our very early years is crucially important. See Jon Cohn’s “The 2-Year Window” for more.)

The whole piece is interesting. As I said, I don’t have a deep understanding of this subject, and I’m not asking you to buy into everything Hirsch says. But it’s worth a read. Via Sullivan.


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