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Intriguing Study Seems To Question Importance Of Word Quantity Spoken To Young Children

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'Scrabble, Word Games' photo (c) 2010, windygig - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

As far as I can tell — and I hope readers will let me know if I’m wrong — it’s been generally accepted that a child’s success in school can be directly connected to the number of words they hear at home. In fact, the city of Providence was recently awarded a $5 million grant by New York Mayor Bloomberg’s foundation to connect high-tech equipment to children’s clothing for an experiment based on this belief (see Could Providence’s Word Counting Project Be A “Boondoggle” As Well As Being Creepy?).

Now, a new study by psychologists at The University of Pennsylvania seem to question this generally accepted believe. It’s quality, not quantity, that matters:

Here are some excerpts from their summary:

A new study by psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania now shows that early vocabulary improvement is likely to have more to do with the “quality” of the interactions in which the words are used rather than the sheer quantity of speech directed at young children. Moreover, the study shows that, unlike quantity, the quality of these interactions is not related to the parents’ socioeconomic status….

…“We see that the more an environment maximizes the ‘here and nowness’ of speech, such as when a parent is gesturing or looking at the object in question, the more likely it is that an interaction will be highly informative,” Gleitman said. “And it turns out this is surprisingly hard to do; only 7 percent of the examples were able to be guessed correctly by more than half of the adults we showed them to.”

If more than half the adults could guess an example’s target word correctly, that suggested the interaction was highly informative. The researchers used this approach to determine approximately how frequently each child in the study heard these highly informative examples. They found a surprising amount of variability: the parents who provided the highest rate of highly informative examples did so 38 percent of the time, while those who provided the lowest rate did so only 4 percent of the time.

“This means that some parents are providing 10 times as much highly informative learning instances as others,” Gleitman said.

If their conclusions are correct, it seems to me that this might be yet another example of reformers like Mayor Bloomberg pushing the idea of being data-driven instead of being data-driven.

This study identifies a critical nuance in how this issue is considered, and being data-driven does not seem to like nuances….

(Here’s an L.A. Times article on the same study)

And here’s an article from TIME on the study

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Hi Larry,

    Thanks for sharing this. I like the methodology of this study and also highly believe in this focus on “quality” of learning interaction. This has important implications for ELT and how so many programs around the world take a lexical approach and get students “knowing” words. Even ER programs do this, quantifying how many words students have read etc….

    Education is mostly the “how” and not the “what”. An art, a way of being. don’t show me a big, full brain – show me a slim, fit one.

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