20 Million Words

After recently listening to a 2008 story written by Paul Tough and produced by THIS AMERICAN LIFE entitled GOING BIG: Act 1, Harlem Renaissance, I'm amazed about the possibility that the educational achievement gap comes down 20 million words. According to writer Paul Tough, researchers discovered that kids raised in poverty-stricken homes compared to kids raised in homes by accomplished adults with successful professions, hear about 20 million less words between the ages of 0-3, and that concurrently, cognitive capacity is mostly impacted in a child during this same time.

It sounds a bit ambiguous, but the gist is that kids who are simply exposed to a higher quantity and quality of verbal modeling by parents are smarter, better-adjusted, and better-poised to succeed in society. These kids do this first by being successful in the traditional school system, then follow it up in their post-secondary pursuits of college and career.

Delving deeper, the quality of these 20 million words is vastly different as well. Researchers discovered that well-off kids hear about 500,000 encouraging remarks and 80,000 discouraging remarks from parents. Poor kids hear 80,000 encouraging remarks and 200,000 discouraging remarks, comparatively. Not only are these kids suffering verbal abuse that has an emotional impact, studies show that it has a directly-proportional cognitive impact as well.

The implications are that students who are "set" by age 3 will never be able to accomplish the task of achieving verbal and literacy proficiency relative to their peers that are raised in a more nurturing environment. The poor students are set back immediately and indefinitely. Changing their cognitive trajectory is being proved by social behavior researchers to be a difficult if not impossible task.

This single supporting point of Tough's story is one that stops me in my tracks as an educator.

I am an English teacher in an urban charter school with nearly 80% of my student body on free or reduced lunch plans. 80% of my roster fits the profile described by Tough in this story.

And it raises certain questions for me:
1. If this research is true, then what's the point of me even trying to boost literacy among my 17-19 year olds?
2. Are there methods for rapid-remediation of literacy skills for students who've come out of such backgrounds?
3. Is there a way as an educator, for me to determine what's realistic in terms of my ability to recognize which students are most likely to be remediated and focus my efforts upon them?

In order to get to the bottom of this, I'd want to research the growing edges of the things I'm already exposed to, such as Lexile Score testing through the Scholastic Reading Inventory, and examine what best practices are advocated for improving student scores through sequential testing over the course of a semester, and even beyond. I would then want to successfully implement those strategies, and engage my students in taking ownership of their own progress to raise their baseline faster than the recommended 100 points per school year.

Since "giving up" on trying to help 80% of my students change their fortunes isn't an option for me, I have to find some tried and tested method to push back against these statistics. It may be too late to squeeze in an addtional 20 million words for my teenagers, but I can certainly come close.

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