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ILLA Blogs

Commentary and reviews by classical Lutheran education commentators.

The Thirty-Million Word Gap by Age 3

In the introduction to The Children's Hymnal (p. vi) published by Concordia Publishing House circa 1955, we read,

"Many letters from pastors, teachers and workers with children emphasized strongly the fact that much of what has been called the classical heritage of the church can be understood only by adults. Church school leaders, concerned first of all with the spiritual life of the children, have rightly demanded that the materials for children's worship be suited to the comprehension of the child."

One criticism that classical Lutheran education receives from progressive teachers and parents manifests the same mindset. They opine that the vocabulary of the historic liturgy, Lutheran hymnody, and classic literature is unintelligible to children. It is interesting to note and compare the following re-posting of an online article on the site of Houston's Rice University, Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies - School of Literacy and Culture, wherein we find that healthy language acquisition does not favor dumbing down vocabulary when communicating with children. In fact, it would seem that just the opposite should be the case:

A summary from "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3" by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. (2003). American Educator. Spring: 4-9, which was exerpted with permission from B. Hart and T.R. Risley (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

In this study, University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley entered the homes of 42 families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between a parent and child shape language and vocabulary development. Their findings showed marked disparities between the sheer number of words spoken as well as the types of messages conveyed. After four years these differences in parent-child interactions produced significant discrepancies in not only children’s knowledge, but also their skills and experiences with children from high-income families being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. Follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life.

Betty Hart and Todd Risley were at the forefront of educational research during the 1960’s War on Poverty. Frustrated after seeing the effects of their high quality early intervention program aimed at language skill expansion prove unsuccessful in the long-term, they decided to shift their focus. If the proper measures were being taken in the classroom, the only logical conclusion was to take a deeper look at the home. What difference does home-life make in a child’s ability to communicate? Why are the alarming vocabulary gaps between high school students from low and high income environments seemingly foreshadowed by their performance in preschool? Hart and Risley believed that the home housed some of these answers.

Experimental Method:

Hart and Risley recruited 42 families to participate in the study including 13 high-income families, 10 families of middle socio-economic status, 13 of low socio-economic status, and 6 families who were on welfare. Monthly hour-long observations of each family were conducted from the time the child was seven months until age three. Gender and race were also balanced within the sample.


The results of the study were more severe than the researchers anticipated. Observers found that 86 percent to 98 percent of the words used by each child by the age of three were derived from their parents’ vocabularies. Furthermore, not only were the words they used nearly identical, but also the average number of words utilized, the duration of their conversations, and the speech patterns were all strikingly similar to those of their caregivers.

Number of Words Addressed to Children After establishing these patterns of learning through imitation, the researchers next analyzed the content of each conversation to garner a better understanding of each child’s experience. They found that the sheer number of words heard varied greatly along socio-economic lines. On average, children from families on welfare were provided half as much experience as children from working class families, and less than a third of the experience given to children from high-income families. In other words, children from families on welfare heard about 616 words per hour, while those from working class families heard around 1,251 words per hour, and those from professional families heard roughly 2,153 words per hour. Thus, children being raised in middle to high income class homes had far more language exposure to draw from.

In addition to looking at the number of words exchanged, the researchers also looked at what was being said within these conversations. What they found was that higher-income families provided their children with far more words of praise compared to children from low-income families. Conversely, children from low-income families were found to endure far more instances of negative reinforcement compared to their peers from higher-income families. Children from families with professional backgrounds experienced a ratio of six encouragements for every discouragement. For children from working-class families this ratio was two encouragements to one discouragement. Finally, children from families on welfare received on average two discouragements for every encouragement. Therefore, children from families on welfare seemed to experience more negative vocabulary than children from professional and working-class families. 

Children's Vocabulary Differs Greatly Across Income GroupsTo ensure that these findings had long-term implications, 29 of the 42 families were recruited for a follow-up study when the children were in third grade. Researchers found that measures of accomplishment at age three were highly indicative of performance at the ages of nine and ten on various vocabulary, language development, and reading comprehension measures. Thus, the foundation built at age three had a great bearing on their progress many years to come.

Sources Cited:

Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” (2003, spring). American Educator, pp.4-9..http://www.aft.org//sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf

— Prepared by Ashlin Orr, Kinder Institute Intern, 2011-12.

For information about how School Literacy and Culture’s work with oral language development is affecting young students in Houston, please explore our work at the Rice Oral and Written Language (OWL) Lab.

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Liberal Arts Curriculum or Common Core?

The Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod has posted its position on Common Core here: http://www.iglls.org/files/LCMScommon%20core.pdf

In contrast, we note these opening paragraphs from the Heartland Institute which relate details about how . . . "The Diocese of Marquette in Michigan is in the process of adopting a Catholic liberal arts curriculum for all of its schools, instead of using the Common Core State Standards." (The full article is worth consideration -- and note other sites such as these from the Angelicum Academy and a Thomistic View on Common Core vs. Classical Education.)

A spokesman for the diocese says the program has experienced early success.

Common Core is a set of federal standards dictating what students should know at the end of each grade level. As of 2011, 46 states and Washington, DC had adopted the standards. Since then, three  states have officially repealed the standards, and of 45 the states that joined the Common Core Consortia, an association that provides states with Common Core-aligned exams,  25 have dropped out.  Two bills to replace Common Core in Michigan are progressing through the state’s legislature.

The Diocese of Marquette, which operates 10 schools in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, previously had no set curriculum. Marquette Bishop John Doerfler said in a statement in June, “After much consideration, the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Marquette will not adapt or adopt the Common Core State Standards which were developed for the public school system. That said, we acknowledge that there is a base of adequate secular material in the Common Core State Standards that faith-based schools could reference as part of their educational programming. While we respectfully understand that other private and Catholic schools may discern to adapt or adopt the standards for these and other reasons, we do not believe that such actions would benefit the mission, Catholic identity or academic excellence of our schools.”

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Early Lutheran Music Education

As part of a larger project, I have been reading a book by Harvard scholar Christopher Boyd Brown entitled Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).  An entire chapter is devoted to the intersection of Lutheran theology, education, and music in the Bohemian settlement of Joachimsthal, a place the book examines in various respects in its many chapters.  I hope this will provide a refreshing look at the shape of the curriculum at that time.

It is available for purchase at Amazon here: https://amzn.com/0674017056.  Don't forget to use Amazon Smile to make your purchase and support your congregation.

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Dr. Seuss on Killing Phonics

SeussThis is an excerpt from the book Crimes of the Educators: How Liberal Utopians Have Turned Public Education into a Criminal Enterprise by Samuel L. Blumenfeld and Alex Newman. I ordered my copy through Amazon.com, but then I found this version published online:


The excerpt in the book references this more comlete interview in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/23/cat-people

Most parents are unaware that the Dr. Seuss books were created to supplement the whole-word reading programs in the schools. Most people assume that Dr. Seuss made up his stories using his own words. The truth is that a textbook publisher supplied Dr. Seuss with a sight vocabulary of 223 words which he was to use in writing the book, a sight vocabulary in harmony with the sight reading programs the schools were using. Thus, the children would enter first grade having already mastered a sight vocabulary of several hundred words, thereby making first-grade reading a breeze.

Because the Dr. Seuss books are so simple and delightful, many people assume that they were easy to write. But Dr. Seuss debunked that idea in an interview he gave Arizona magazine in June 1981. He said:

They think I did it in twenty minutes. That damned Cat in the Hat took nine months until I was satisfied. I did it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey revolt in the Twenties, in which they threw out phonic reading and went to word recognition, as if you’re reading a Chinese pictograph instead of blending sounds of different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country. Anyway, they had it all
worked out that a healthy child at the age of four can learn so many words in a week and that’s all. So there were two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this book. I read the list three times and I almost went out of my head. I said, I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme that’ll be the title of my book. (That’s genius at work.) I found “cat” and “hat” and I said, “The title will be The Cat in the Hat.”

So Dr. Seuss was quite aware of what the educators were up to. He was correct in citing John Dewey, the progressive educator, as the culprit in this insidious changeover from phonics to the sight method, which Seuss believed was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in America. But somehow that insight, made by America's most famous writer of children's books, has escaped our educators.

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VeggieTales: Morality, not Christianity?

This excerpt comes from “It’s Not About the Dream,” WORLD magazine, Sep 24, 2011, 57-58.

veggietalesVeggieTales was a rags-to-riches entrepreneurial success story. Vischer and his counterpart, Mike Nawrocki, left college to pursue their dream of making wildly creative children’s videos. At the height of their success in the late 1990s, VeggieTales videos sold 7 million copies in a single year and generated $40 million in revenue. Though primarily aimed at a Christian market, VeggieTales had a broader cultural influence, pushing forward the boundaries of computer animation and children’s programming.

But success brought failure. Though Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber are still around, they aren’t the same. Big Idea Productions went bankrupt in 2003 and Vischer lost ownership and creative control of the whole enterprise. VeggieTales is no longer VeggieTales. The characters still exist – and in some cases are even voiced by Nawrocki and Vischer as hired talent – but the decisions are now made by studio execs who don’t share the vision or worldview of the original founders.

In a recent issue of WORLD magazine, Vischer acknowledged to interviewer Megan Basham that the bankruptcy and subsequent trials have given him perspective. His words reveal a man who’s beginning to see the difference between moralism and the gospel. And a man humble enough to acknowledge his role in confusing the two:

“I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, ‘Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,’ or, ‘Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!’ But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. American Christian[s]… are drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god… We’ve completely taken this Disney notion of ‘when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true’ and melded that with faith and come up with something completely different. There’s something wrong in a culture that preaches nothing is more sacred than your dream. I mean, we walk away from marriages to follow our dreams. We abandon children to follow our dreams. We hurt people in the name of our dreams, which as a Christian is just preposterous."

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