Yes. Knowledge and vocabulary grow exponentially inside and outside of school. The longer schools wait to immerse children in knowledge-building subject matter, the more difficult it is to close the gaps.
While no elementary schools truly eschew building children’s knowledge, academics often do take a backseat to developing basic reading skills. The popular concept of “learning to read and then reading to learn” subtly reinforces the notion that science and social studies can wait. No program aims to increase achievement gaps, but that may be the result.
Take vocabulary growth, for example. Researchers estimate that college-ready teens know about 60,000 to 100,000 words. That’s far too many to have learned through traditional vocabulary instruction. Most words are learned indirectly, bit by bit, through multiple exposures in multiple contexts. The larger the child’s vocabulary, the more contexts she understands, and the more her vocabulary grows. When children are young, much of that learning is through listening and asking questions. Later on, most of it is through reading, especially since written texts use far more academic vocabulary than spoken language. Either way, the growth is exponential.
But exponential growth does not mean that all children are learning at the same rate. Children with well-educated parents tend to have far more opportunities to learn, and far steeper growth curves for knowledge and vocabulary. Reading researcher Keith Stanovich dubbed this the Matthew effect, referring to the Biblical passage about the rich growing richer.
Nell Duke, another prominent reading researcher, describes a “virtuous cycle”:
“Over the past 20 years, cognitive psychologists have reached broad consensus on the nature of comprehension.... We bring knowledge to the comprehension process, and that knowledge shapes our comprehension. When we comprehend, we gain new information that changes our knowledge, which is then available for later comprehension. So, in that positive, virtuous cycle, knowledge begets comprehension, which begets knowledge, and so on. In a very real sense, we literally read and learn our way into greater knowledge about the world and greater comprehension capacity.”
The more knowledge children have, the faster — the more virtuous — that cycle is. And the less knowledge children bring with them to school, the more their teachers should focus on building it as early and as quickly as possible.
Written in partnership with the Knowledge Matters Campaign