Vocabulary and Learning

My grandmother used to tell a story about "tibi-tibi". I am not sure how that word is correctly spelled. As far as I understand, "tibi" refers to hard dry stool often associated with constipation. In Paete, Laguna, where sewage mixes with storm drains, "tibi-tibi" is a character that floats with the flow, meeting others in the story as it finds its final destination. I think my grandmother got tired telling the story before I got tired hearing it. Oral tradition was the only way to tell stories then. There were no books, no pictures. I was not required to read, but I simply had to imagine inside my head the scenes and characters portrayed in the story. 

During my early years in school and this continued up till college, I found comfort in mathematics. Especially in first grade, all I had to know are the numbers and the plus, minus and equals signs. Algebra was a shock because I had to read problems to construct the equation. I could solve for x given the equation, but it was difficult for me to formulate the equation from sentences. Throughout high school and even in my early college years at the Ateneo, both reading and writing were particularly challenging. I survived mainly because of calculus, stoichiometry and equations. Even chemistry was difficult until I found myself reading.

Reading and writing are essential not just for literary purposes, but also for content learning. It is thus important to pinpoint what factors are important in developing reading comprehension. We learn both math and science from reading. We learn to relate and reason from what we read, and express this ability as we write. One of the factors that have been identified as a culprit in the achievement gap among learners in the United States is vocabulary. The following data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show a very strong correlation between a child's vocabulary and reading comprehension.

NOTE: The results for grades 4 and 8 are from the 2011 reading assessment, and the results for grade 12 are from the 2009 assessment.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2009 and 2011 Reading Assessments.
About two years ago, a program in National Public Radio, "Closing the Achievement Gap with Baby Talk", highlighted the work of Hart and Risley.

...Hart and Risley embarked on an ambitious research project. They decided they would follow 40 families — rich, poor and in between — for the first three years of their children's lives. Literally, they would record and count the words that were said to these children. 
"We really wanted to know everything that was happening to the kids," Hart says. "Who talked to the child, how long, how often, how many different words were said and how many total words were said. How many past-tense verbs and in what circumstances... 
...Hart says it took close to 10 years to transcribe these tapes so they could be fed into a computer for analysis. But the results were worth it. Hart and Risley discovered many fascinating things about the differences between the way rich and poor families on average speak to their children. 
But in the end, the finding that most struck people, Hart says, was not about the quality of the speech — how often rich versus poor parents asked questions or positively affirmed their children — but about the quantity. 
According to their research, the average child in a welfare home heard about 600 words an hour while a child in a professional home heard 2,100.
The results have been presented in various web sites. The following table shown by the Department of Education at the University of Oregon in its webpage, "Big Ideas in Beginning Reading", is an example.

  1. Emergence of the Problem
    In a typical hour, the average child hears:
    Family StatusNumber of words heardEncouraging words versus discouraging
    Welfare616 words5 affirmations, 11 prohibitions
    Working Class1,251 words12 affirmations, 7 prohibitions
    Professional2,153 words32 affirmations, 5 prohibitions

  2. Cumulative Vocabulary Experiences
    Family StatusWords heard per hourWords heard in a 100-hour weekWords heard in a 5,200 hour yearWords heard in 4 years
    Welfare61662,0003 million13 million
    Working Class1,251125,0006 million26 million
    Professional2,153215,00011 million45 million

  3. Meaningful Differences
    By the time the children were 3 years oldparents in less economically favored circumstances had said fewer different words in their cumulative monthly vocabularies than the children in the most economically advantaged families in the same period of time.
    Cumulative Vocabulary
    Children from welfare families:500 words
    Children from working class families:700 words
    Children from professional families:1,100 words

No wonder, Hart and Risley wrote an article with the title, "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3". This is just the oral side of the story. The vocabulary of a child is influenced later on in life by reading. Hayes and Ahrens pointed out in a research article (Hayes, D. P. & Ahrens, M. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children: A special case of ‘motherese.’ Journal of Child Language, 15, 395–410.) that there is a dramatic difference in the distribution of words used between oral and written forms:

Downloaded from Cunnighan and Stanovich, "What Reading Does for the Mind"
The "Rank" shown in the heading of one of the columns above refers to a standard frequency count of about 80000 English words. In this ranking, the word "the" ranks first, "it" is number 10, "know" is 100, "pass" is 1000, and "vibrate" is 5000 ( Cunnighan and Stanovich, "What Reading Does for the Mind"). The column "Rank of Median Word" then provides a measure of how common the words are in a particular communication. Abstracts of scientific articles use words that are seldom used while preschool books employ much more common words. However, the dramatic difference is seen when one compares written against oral communication. Television shows as well as conversations between college graduates do not really surpass children books in terms of richness in vocabulary. The last column lists the number of rare words per 1000 observed in these different forms of communication. Here, comic books are even richer in vocabulary than television shows and expert witness testimonies in court.

The vocabulary dimension of scientific articles sets it apart from all the rest. No wonder, with my limited vocabulary, I had difficulty in college. But enough about me, in light of the above observations, I would raise an additional question, one that was raised by Zanele Buthelezi in "Researchers, Beware of Your Assumptions! The Unique Case of South African Education":
"...There is even a shortage of books written in English. Up to five children can be found sharing a book in a classroom. The situation is worse for reading materials written in indigenous languages. Therefore, “bedtime story” does not exist in the African home vocabulary, especially in rural areas. This situation does not foster the habits of reading for pleasure and, thus, African children are at a disadvantage at school and do not become competent in reading textbooks designed to develop knowledge in different learning areas. The socioeconomic gap becomes even wider when richer children move on to computer-based learning, while poorer students continue not to have access even to ordinary books. Thus, computer technology merely privileges the already privileged. 
Many African parents tell stories from the oral tradition to their children. Folktales are important because they link children with their culture and help them to build a strong identity. But the typical patterns of meaning of oral stories are quite different from those of written stories. The elaboration of characters, events, and settings, and the relation of illustrations and text are highly distinctive in written stories. But an even more significant difference is the role of parent-child interaction in interpreting the meanings and words of written stories (Rose, 2003). Many African children are not exposed to this kind of orientation, which is crucial in preparing them to become independent readers and writers in school. The majority of children in South Africa start school without the necessary preliteracy skills. As a result, they have little concept of what reading means and have not developed the skills that make subsequent acquisition of literacy easier...."
These are important studies, one that should inform us in finding ways to solve problems in Philippine basic education. What does instruction using the mother tongue really require? We simply must have the answer to that question. Otherwise, we are simply jumping from a cliff. In English, the difference between oral and written text is simply staggering. Television shows likewise lack the richness in vocabulary.


By the way, one could improve vocabulary and at the same time donate rice to the hungry of the world:


FreeRice is a sister site of the world poverty site, www.poverty.com

FreeRice has two goals:

Provide English vocabulary to everyone for free.
Help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.
This is made possible by the sponsors who advertise on this site.

Whether you are CEO of a large corporation or a street child in a poor country, improving your vocabulary can improve your life. It is a great investment in yourself.

Perhaps even greater is the investment your donated rice makes in hungry human beings, enabling them to function and be productive. Somewhere in the world, a person is eating rice that you helped provide. Thank you.