What is the word gap?

According to data from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 65% of all U.S. fourth grade students, and 79% of all low-income students, are below proficient in reading. The numbers are so severe that 32 States and the District of Columbia have statutes in place to improve third grade reading proficiency.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. 4th graders read below proficiency.

Reading proficency
Reading proficency

The root cause of the problem is a lack of vocabulary, commonly referred to as the ‘word gap.’ There are crucial links between exposure to spoken sophisticated words, vocabulary acquisition and retention and reading proficiency (Hart and Risley, 1995). Hart and Risley showed that children from low-income homes entered kindergarten having heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional homes, the latter benefiting from a quantity of spoken sophisticated vocabulary in the form of conversation, being read to, etc. This vocabulary deficit explained an achievement gap for low-income students that extended through elementary school. And with 53% of all U.S. students qualifying as low-income, it’s a national problem.

Only half of young children are read to at least once a day.

Only half of children are read to on a daily basis, falling to 39% in non-white homes (Parenting in America, 2015). Parents are not reading to children, not reading to them in sufficient quantity or cannot read to them in English. Moreover, most parents lack a sophisticated vocabulary themselves to be effective when speaking to their children (Massaro, 2015). Over time, the value of daily reading is shockingly apparent, as is its absence.

8,000 words per year

< 2 minutes a day

282,000 words per year

5 minutes a day

1,800,000 words per year

20 minutes a day

“The word has to click once they read it off of the page. Students have to understand what those words are and what they mean before the act of reading makes sense.”

Cindy Gunja, Resource Teacher, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School.

Repeated exposure to spoken
sophisticated words

The challenge is to surround children with spoken sophisticated words to erase the word gap and raise reading scores. Proficient reading is a function of decoding words and listening comprehension (Gough and Tunmer, 1986). Listening comprehension is critical to reading comprehension, since listening comprehension is language ability (i.e., vocabulary and fluency) and background knowledge (Moats, 2004). In other words, word knowledge is key to reading proficiency and is derived through repeated exposure to sophisticated words, spoken fluently and in context. Yet, vocabulary instruction is neither frequent nor systematic in most schools (Biemiller, 2001; Durkin, 1978; Lesaux, Kieffer, Fller & Kelley, 2010; Scott and Nagy, 1997). Students who can decode words but do not understand their meaning are not reading proficiently.

Decoding skills + Word Knowledge (Vocabulary and Fluency) = Reading Proficiency
Decoding skills + Word Knowledge (Vocabulary and Fluency) = Reading Proficiency

All of the above research underpins the new State standards that have been adopted across the U.S., specifically raising listening to a skill equivalent to reading, writing and speaking. The new listening standards extend through primary school because listening comprehension has been shown to outpace reading comprehension through eighth grade (Sticht and James, 1984).

word gap