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Is there such a thing as the 30 million word gap?Learning phonics is not enough to be efficient at word identification.Reflect on the application of knowledge to professional practice.

Stimulus 3: Is there such a thing as the 30 million word gap?

The expression, “the 30 million word gap” arose from the landmark study by Hart and Risley (1995) and refers to the estimated difference in the number of words that children from high socio-economic status (SES) groups are exposed to, compared to children from low SES groups by the time they reach school. Further research in this area shows that there is a large difference, not only in the number of words, but also in the quality and number of conversational turns that children experience, both within and across SES groups, and this can play a role in children’s language development and effect their academic success in school.

In their study, Hart and Risley (1995) recorded children of varying socioeconomic status for one hour once a month and counted the number of words that were spoken to them. These figures were extrapolated, allowing them to estimate that students from a higher SES would encounter 30 million more words than students from a lower SES by the time they started school. Whilst their study was reasonably small and involved the use of an observer recording for only one hour a month, similar differences have been found in subsequent studies (Gilkerson et al., 2017). As well as removing the possible distractions of an observer through the use of recording devices, and recording for longer periods of time to gain a more accurate snapshot of the child’s daily verbal interactions, these studies have also found differences in the quality of the words spoken to children and in the number of conversational turns they experience, both within and between SES groups (Gilkerson, et al., 2017; Hirsch-Pasek et al., 2015; Romeo, 2018; Rowe, 2012; Weisleder & Fernald, 2013).

These differences in conversation and word exposure are important, because as Romeo et al. (2018) discuss, there is a proximal relationship between language exposure and language development. Romeo et al.’s (2018) study looked at neural activation patterns connecting early children’s language exposure and language skills, and showed a relationship existing between conversational turns that a child experiences and their language development. They hypothesize that increased conversational turns allows for more opportunities for children to practice language, receive adult feedback, and for the development of a feedback loop for adults, allowing them to tailor their language to best support their child’s language development. This is supported by other studies showing that both across and within SES groups, children who receive more child-directed speech at a level that supports and challenges their language development, develop higher vocabularies and better language processing skills – factors which are strong predictors of a child’s school readiness and ability to learn to read and succeed in school (Gilkerson, 2016;  Wasik & Hindman, 2015; Hirsch-Pasek et al., 2015; Rowe, 2012; Weisleder & Fernald, 2013).

Whilst there are differences in children’s language exposure within SES groups, the largest differences do occur between the highest and lowest SES groups (Gilkerson et al., 2016). However, authors such as Johnson (2015) make the point that labelling this difference as a “gap” creates a deficit view. Johnson (2015) notes that students from lower SES backgrounds are not inferior, but operate from different language and cultural schemas, which, unlike those of higher SES students, are not necessarily valued in schools. He reminds us that these students bring their own communication abilities and strengths to the classroom, which can be used and built upon to ensure their academic success.

However, whilst it may not be a “gap”, and whilst it may not necessarily be a difference of 30 million words between high and low SES groups, there is a large difference in the language quantity and quality that children experience, and this does affect their readiness for school language demands and development of their reading and academic skills.


Stimulus 5: Learning phonics is not enough to be efficient at word identification.

As part of the “Big Six” (Konza, 2011a), phonics is an essential part of being able to recognize and read words. However, learning phonics is not enough to ensure efficient word identification and reading. For this to happen, students must be able to draw on a range of skills and strategies including phonics, the use of automatic recall, orthographic knowledge, analogy and context (Ehri, 2005; Snyder & Golightly, 2017; Westwood, 2008).

Phonics involves understanding the alphabetic principle and the correspondence between letters, or groups of letters, and their sounds. Ehri (2005, p.173) refers to the alphabetic system as a “powerful mnemonic system” and an understanding of this device allows readers to visually see the pronunciation of words. For beginner readers who have had limited exposure to words, using phonetic knowledge to sound out, blend and decode is the most reliable way to identify a word (Westwood, 2008). And evidence shows that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is an essential part of effective reading instruction (Konza, 2011b).

However, not all words in the English language can be decoded in this way. Irregular words don’t follow predictable grapheme-phoneme correspondence and cannot be decoded and identified by applying phonics knowledge (Watts & Gardner, 2012). To efficiently identify these words, they must be learnt by sight. As Snyder and Golightly (2017) write, this is different skill from learning phonics and Konza (2011b) recommends that high frequency sight words are taught simultaneously with instruction in phonics. Shapiro and Solity (2016) and Watts and Gardner (2012) also found that intensive high frequency word instruction was especially beneficial for less able readers. These readers, who often have lower levels of phonemic awareness, were more able to develop sight word knowledge (which is less dependent on phonemic awareness), and being able to efficiently identify sight words gave these students not only increased fluency and confidence in their reading, but also aided their development of orthographic knowledge (Shapiro & Solity, 2016).

Orthographic knowledge, the knowledge of groups of letters that are used in combination to represent other sounds, and the usage of it increases efficiency in word identification (Westwood, 2008). Using phonetic letter-by-letter decoding can give accurate identification of regular words, but it is a slow process and it places large demands on working memory (Westwood, 2008). Whilst the most efficient way to identify a word is to recognize that word instantly by sight, using orthographic units, clusters and larger chunks of letters, is a stepping stone to this, and a more efficient way to determine unfamiliar words (Watts & Gardner, 2012). The development of word knowledge, such as word families, morphemes, and root words, also increases efficiency in word identification. This knowledge allows students to use analogies, to see and make connections between words, and can provide faster word recognition (Ehri, 2005; Westwood, 2008).

The use of context can also aid in word identification. Whilst this is considered the least reliable strategy for determining a word, it can be beneficial as a back-up and check of correctness (Westwood, 2008). The use context for word identification, as with the other strategies discussed, is not mutually exclusive, and competent readers will flexibly use these strategies and skills individually or together to identify words (Westwood, 2008).

The development of these skills and strategies comes through providing a balanced program, a program that includes systematic and explicit focus on phonics, sight word instruction, word study, spelling, reading texts out loud and independently, and writing words, messages and longer texts, all of which give students opportunities to see how word identification strategies are used, and practice them (Konza, 2011b). The more efficient students are at identifying words, the more cognitive capacity they have available for focusing on comprehension and making meaning, therefore students should learn not only phonics, but also sight words, automatic recall, orthographic knowledge and how to use context and analogy to allow them the best opportunity for efficient word identification.


Final Stimulus: Reflect on the application of knowledge to professional practice.

I have just begun a new job working with fourth grade students in a small school district in Dallas, Texas. Part of my job is working with students who have learning difficulties and are struggling readers. Therefore, all aspects of LCN632 that have been covered so far are highly relevant and applicable to my current professional practice. However, three areas that have really stood out, and that I am working hard on applying are: the importance of evidence-based practice; accurate identification of students who are falling behind and their needs; and building a vocabulary-rich environment.

Being an outsider and a newcomer to a school, it is easy to spot the things that are done because they have always been done, and always done in a certain way. However, as seen through LCN632 class discussions, readings and videos, just because something is done and liked by teachers does not mean that is effective and meets the needs of students. I also realise that it is not easy to change things. Therefore, I am looking at certain practices in our school, for example the current reading intervention program, from a research basis, both current scholarly research and class-based action research. By doing this, I can clearly and objectively outline the advantages and disadvantages of this program, and support any changes that I propose with evidence.

The second area of practice that I am working on applying my knowledge to is reading assessment, and the referral of students to the reading intervention program. I am working with teachers to ensure that the current assessment practices are effective in catching all students who are falling behind. As the Matthews Effect shows, unless these students receive the help they need, the gap is only going to get wider and they are going to struggle more and more. This is especially relevant for fourth grade students, as more and more it is becoming a necessity that they are able to read to learn. Within this review of assessment and referral, I am also looking at ways to assess why students are struggling and where the breakdown in their cognitive reading systems lie. Using my understanding Konza’s (2011a) Big Six and the seven patterns of developmental reading impairment outlined by Coltheart (2015), I want to be able to target my intervention to the specific needs of my students. Part of this may include taking an approach like Edwards (2008) and doing a fun phonics intervention, something which previously I would have thought of only doing with students in the lower grades, not those in fourth grade.

I have also been inspired by the vocabulary building ideas and am looking at ways to incorporate some of these with my students. I want to share my love of words with students and make them not only excited about learning new words, but also help them develop strategies to learn new words. I love the idea of immersing students in rich language and am currently leaving myself daily reminders to consistently use new and different words. In the past I have generally refrained from using many Australian words in the classroom, as I thought it took too long to explain myself and make myself understood. However, I now see this as a way to bring about curiosity in students and make them think about the words they use, as well as expand their vocabularies – even if only for knowledge of words such as bloke and rubbish bin!


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