Lower-income children who need preparation in academic language and exposure to texts that promote academic vocabulary are not getting enough of either type of instruction. Explicit vocabulary instruction rarely occurs in schools, and when it does it appears to be insufficient for promoting word growth and increased comprehension of text.
Our primary recommendation is for educators and educational leadership to provide school-wide systematic vocabulary instruction for low-income children and English language learners. This is not a new idea: During the War on Poverty in the 1960s, there were calls for systematic instruction in vocabulary for disadvantaged students as one of the mechanisms for increasing academic achievement.
As late as the fifth grade, children learn almost 80 percent of new words as a result of direct explanation, usually by a teacher. This is good news because it underscores the effectiveness of teacher-directed instruction in improving vocabulary and comprehension. Interventions that specifically target vocabulary learning have shown promising results for at-risk children and should be a primary component of expanded learning time.
Because of time constraints during the traditional school day, many literacy blocks tend to promote some of the skills associated with early reading over others. Skills such as phonological awareness and decoding are vital for reading comprehension, but vocabulary knowledge and familiarity with text structures are crucial as well. It may be accurate to claim that a great part of the achievement gap is in fact a vocabulary gap. This gap, we argue, can be narrowed through more time spent on developing this crucial language base.
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