Closing the vocabulary gap one word at a time

Hyoun-Suk Moon / MCT

There is tangible evidence of a gap in how children learn before they even reach kindergarten. A recent Stanford University study showed that children who are behind their peers in overall language development at 18 months of age will know about half as many words as their counterparts when they reach the age of 4.

The number of words a child knows by 4 is a strong indicator of how well they will do later in school. A poor vocabulary at this age translates into poor reading comprehension later on, as well as difficulty understanding new words and communicating with others.

This is because 80 percent of children’s brain develops by their third birthday; the early years from birth through 5 are critical to their cognitive, social and emotional growth. Even small investments in time and attention during this period can mean the difference between a child who can reach the finish line and one who will never even see it.

But there is good news. Families that simply talk, read or sing to their babies and toddlers every day will expose them to millions of words by the time they reach school age. This requires no special training or education — just our promise to engage with our children from a very early age.

We see a special opportunity to have an impact with Hispanic families, who account for roughly one in four of America’s schoolchildren and are expected to dramatically increase in number in states such as Florida and Arizona. Many of the children affected by the “word gap” are considered dual-language learners. That is, they hear a language other than English spoken in their homes.

In focus groups across America, Hispanic parents have reported concerns about talking to their children in Spanish, for fear of causing delays or complications in early English education. The reality, though, is that talking — or reading or singing — to a child in any language — actually builds the child’s understanding of how language works.

Brain scientists and linguistic experts say learning in one’s native language provides a strong foundation for learning a second language. We also know that exposing a child to two languages during these early years can help them learn more efficiently as they grow.

So we need to encourage parents to speak to their children in the language they feel most comfortable using and to take advantage of every opportunity to impart new words. In time, their children will learn to sort out the different words they are hearing inside and outside the home, and they’ll reap the benefits of growing up bilingual.

As business leaders and parents, we both understand why it’s important for all children to have the best possible start in their education and their lives. Today’s young children will someday become the workforce, leaders and parents of tomorrow. But without the vocabulary and learning skills to properly articulate and develop their thoughts, our communities’ most vulnerable children will fall behind and never catch up.

That’s why we are engaged with Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Together we are working in communities across America to reach millions of families with messages about the value of spending quality time communicating with their children in their early, formative years.

And we are having an impact. Thanks to a month-long effort in April across Univision media, thousands of families have pledged to dedicate time every day talking, reading and singing to their children. That translates into millions of more words our children will hear and learn, better preparing them for their future. Building on this success, we plan to continue engaging and educating parents about this critical subject for years to come.

There is no question that parents — regardless of income, race, or education level — want what is best for their children. We believe that it’s important for parents and their communities to recognize the power they have to help their children learn—and collectively, to vastly improve literacy and educational achievement nationwide.

If we work together in a concerted effort to narrow the word gap by increasing the vocabulary of children before they enter school, we can help provide all of America’s children with opportunities to succeed.

Cindy Hensley McCain is chairman of Hensley & Company, wife of Sen. John McCain and a member of the Leadership Council of Too Small to Fail. Roberto Llamas is executive vice-president and chief human resources and community empowerment officer at Univision Communications.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

Tony Lesesne


    Tony Lesesne: Overkill, and an apology

    Yes, it happens in South Florida, too — and it shouldn’t. Black men pulled over, needlessly hassled by police officers who give the rest of their colleagues a bad name, who make no distinction when a suspect has no other description than ‘black male,’ who harass residents because they can. A North Miami Beach officer pulls over a black man in a suit and tie — and behind the wheel of an Audi that simply had to be stolen, right? In another Miami-Dade city, an officer demands that an African-American man installing a vegetable garden justify why he has a shovel and seedlings. Detained for possession of cilantro? Here are five South Floridians who tell of their experiences in this community and beyond, years ago, and all too recently.

Delrish Moss


    Delrish Moss: Out after dark

    “I was walking up Seventh Avenue, just shy of 14th street. I was about 17 and going home from my job. I worked at Biscayne Federal Bank after school. The bank had a kitchen, and I washed the dishes. A police officer gets out of his car. He didn’t say anything. He came up and pushed me against a wall, frisked me, then asked what I was doing walking over here after dark. Then he got into his car and left. I never got a chance to respond. I remember standing there feeling like my dignity had been taken with no explanation. I would have felt better about that incident had I gotten some sort of dialogue. I had not had any encounters with police.


    Bill Diggs: Hurt officer’s feelings

    “I’m the first generation in my family to go to college, and if I wanted to do nothing else, I wanted to make my mom happy. I was living for my parents, I wanted to be that guy, I wanted to go to work and not have to put on steel-toe boots. And here I am in Atlanta, I have finally grown to a particular level of affluence. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was a college kid, wearing a suit, driving a nice BMW going to work everyday. Can’t beat that. I would leave my house, drive up Highway 78, the Stone Mountain area, grab some coffee, go to work. So on this particular morning, there’s a cop who’s rustling up this homeless guy outside the gas station where I was filling up. I’m shaking my head, the cop looks at me. This homeless guy is there every morning. I get in my car and on to the expressway. The police officer comes shooting up behind me. I doing 65, 70. He gets up behind me, I notice he’s following me. I get in one lane, he gets in the lane, I get in another lane, he gets in that lane. He finally flips his lights on, he comes up to the car. I’ve been pulled over for speeding before, I know the drill. Got my hands up here, don’t want to get shot, and I think he’s going to say what I’ve heard before: ‘License and registration, please.’ He says ‘Get out of the car!’ and he reaches in and grabs me by my shirt. He says, ‘So you’re a smart ass, huh?’ Finally he says, ‘License and registration.’ I tell him it’s in the car. He says, ‘Get it for me!’ He goes back to his car, comes back and asks, ‘So where did you get the car from?’ I say ‘It’s a friend of mine’s.” He says, ‘Is it stolen? What are you doing driving your friend’s car?’ I finally asked, ‘Is there a reason you stopped me? You followed me, what’s up, man?’ He says, ‘I’m going to let you go with a warning, but if you see me doing what I’ve got to do for my job, don’t you ever f---ing worry about it.”

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category