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Volume 21, Number 4
July/August 2005

From Literacy to Learning

An interview with Catherine Snow on vocabulary, comprehension, and the achievement gap


Catherine Snow, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is an expert on language and literacy development in children. Her research focuses on how youngsters acquire oral language and how those skills determine educational outcomes. Her current research includes a 15-year longitudinal study of language and literacy skills among low-income children. Here, she discusses with HEL contributor Darcia Harris Bowman and editor Michael Sadowski the importance of high-quality language instruction in preschool and early elementary school, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.

What is literacy, and how does its development determine a child’s readiness to learn and succeed academically?

I define literacy rather narrowly, as the capacity to construct and express meaning through reading, writing, and talking about texts. Clearly, literacy defined this way has to be seen as developmental. Literacy is a prerequisite to the acquisition of new information and the formulation of new ideas. Almost everything kids learn from the fourth grade on they have to learn by reading and writing. Kids who struggle with the task of reading or writing—through which they must convey what they’ve learned—are unable to show their teachers that they understand.

Before fourth grade, what kinds of literacy and language development are important to provide those building blocks for learning?

All of the comprehension skills that we hope fourth graders and older children will use when confronted with texts can be practiced or learned starting as soon as children are learning to talk. However, some of those oral conversations don’t provide much grist for the mill of comprehension. For example, perhaps the most frequently repeated advice to parents and early childhood educators is “Read to kids.” The reason I think that’s very good advice is because the kind of talk one engages in when reading to young children and discussing books with them offers many of the comprehension challenges that children will face in reading texts for themselves when they’re older: connecting ideas across paragraphs; understanding realms of knowledge through language; encountering and learning to use more complex vocabulary than you do in normal, spontaneous conversation; and familiarity with some of the conventions that are used in written language but not used in spoken language.

Why is it important for younger children to develop their vocabularies beyond what they would learn in normal everyday interactions?

There are all kinds of reasons teaching vocabulary is important. For one, we want kids to know 80,000 words by the time they graduate from high school. If you’re missing a year, if you’re allowing some kids to learn words at a rate that’s only 75 percent as fast as other kids, you accumulate huge differences. Because vocabulary is such a big domain, the accumulation of deficit is a big problem. That’s not at all the case for learning letters or learning sounds or learning spelling rules. So you miss some in first grade? You can get them in second grade. You can’t do that with vocabulary.

By the time middle-class kids with well-educated parents are in the third grade, they probably know 12,000 words. But we don’t have a curriculum in kindergarten for teaching vocabulary, and we don’t have a curriculum in preschool for teaching vocabulary. It’s just something we assume kids are going to do on their own. Meanwhile, kids of undereducated parents who don’t talk to them very much probably have vocabularies of 4,000 words by the time they’re in third grade—a third as many words as their middle-class peers.

That’s why it’s important to start early on with vocabulary development, because you bring disadvantaged children—kids from non-English-speaking families, or kids from families that don’t talk very much—much closer to the developmental trajectory of the students from highly educated, middle-class families. That is the mechanism for shrinking the achievement gap.

Are there ways to improve equity in terms of children’s language development and skills when they start kindergarten?

At the moment, the kids with the best home environments are also in the best preschool classes from a strictly language point of view. Clearly, if we were being sensible about this, we’d put kids from families where there are fewer language resources into preschools where there are more language resources and not worry about the kids from language-rich families. This is the way that Sweden organizes early childhood education. It gives priority for the free, very high-quality early childhood settings to the people that they define as most at risk: single-parent families, non-Swedish-speaking families, immigrant families, families living below the poverty line. We do just the opposite. Half of those at-risk kids in this country are in the care of relatives or informal family day care—settings where there isn’t a professional educator present, let alone books and curricula.

What do you see getting in the way of the kinds of early literacy instruction that would be the most effective and reach the most children?

Well, the obstacles for preschools versus elementary schools are probably different. For preschools, there are different versions of the problem. Some have a commitment to natural development and not interfering at all as long as the kids are having a good time. That’s fine as long as those children are having a lot of rich language and literacy experience in other contexts. But it’s not fine for the kids we’re most worried about, such as kids from low-income families and English-language learners.

On the other hand, in Head Start there’s this focus on, “They’ve got to learn the letters, they’ve got to learn their numbers, they’ve got to learn their colors, because those are the things kindergartners are supposed to know.” I don’t disagree, but people are not saying in kindergarten that students have to learn words, they have to learn the language, they have to learn to talk, they have to learn to tell stories, they have to learn to comprehend. That’s harder to test. And it’s harder to take ill-prepared early childhood educators and give them the resources that would enable them to support that kind of learning.

At the K–3 stage, it is really the accountability demands at play. The assessments that are used in first and second grade are heavily focused on phonological awareness, fluency. There’s purely token acknowledgement of the importance of vocabulary instruction in early elementary curricula, and that gets reflected in what the publishers provide. Even in third grade, students are not being tested on vocabulary. They’re tested on something called comprehension, but it’s very literal comprehension. Until you get discussion and vocabulary into curriculum and assessment, they’re not going to happen in early childhood classrooms.

This article is part of an ongoing series on the education of children from preK through grade 3, made possible through the support of the Foundation for Child Development.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    M.S. Burns, P. Griffin, and C.E. Snow. Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1999.

    B. Hart and T.R. Risley. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1995.

    D.K. Dickinson and P.O. Tabors. Beginning Literacy with Language: Young Children Learning at Home and School. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1995.