Maine Voices: Let’s eliminate ‘the million word gap’ in kindergarten

Eliminating “the million word gap” with children entering kindergarten should be a goal for all of us. In order to provide equal footing for all kindergartners entering school, we need to eliminate this gap between kindergartners whose parents have read to them and those who have not.

According to a recent Ohio State University study, young children whose parents read at least five board or picture books a day to them enter kindergarten having heard an estimated 1.4 million more words than children who were rarely or never read to. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com

According to a recent Ohio State University study, young children whose parents read at least five board or picture books a day to them until they enter kindergarten introduce hundreds of thousands of words to their children by age 5. They enter kindergarten having heard an estimated 1.4 million more words than children who were rarely or never read to.

It seems as if this has been an objective for decades, but today’s world brings different challenges. Parents are overwhelmed, often trying to work from home or laid off during the pandemic. Many were expected to become teachers overnight. Child care centers were closed, leaving parents in the lurch. Sometimes TV and technology filled the gap.

Technology occupies and mesmerizes children, but technology does not make the connections that reading does. There is nothing like holding a child on your lap and making a book come alive. Adults are encouraged to have fun, use different voices and interact with children as they read. Reading to children can plant the seeds not only for literacy but also for a lifelong love of books.

Reading expert Phyllis Hunter said in a Reading Rockets interview that this time is “much more than a chance to cuddle.” She believes that learning to read must be taught and doesn’t just happen the way walking and talking does: “You could surround children with books on a desert island and unless somebody reads to them, they would not pick up those books and just read them.”

Teachers believe that what parents do before entering elementary school can have a huge impact on children learning to read. “The million word gap” separates children who succeed in learning reading skills easily and reading on grade level and those who do not.

Reading a variety of fiction and nonfiction picture books offers a chance for children to be introduced to unique vocabulary not used in conversation. Jessica Logan, the lead investigator of the Ohio State study, explained that this vocabulary word gap is different from words heard in conversation. She explained that the words heard in books can be much more complex than those in talking.

This is important because these new vocabulary words often appear in school at later dates. Children who have heard these words are more likely to recognize them in print. Children who are not familiar are at a distinct disadvantage. This can put them behind at the beginning of their schooling.

Unfortunately for the children who are not sharing books, catching up is difficult if not impossible. This is because the parents keep reading and the children continue to collect vocabulary words while their classmates lag further behind, not having the chance to hear new words. Frustration can build and they may lose interest.

While the researchers broke it down into how many books should be read per day and how many words were on a page, the main focus is to read to children in order for them to transfer this into reading for themselves.Reading together for 20 minutes a day is the most important gift you can give your child,” said children’s author and illustrator Rosemary Wells, who created “Read to Your Bunny” over 20 years ago as an invitation to literacy from parents to their children:

“Read to your bunny often, / It’s twenty minutes of fun. / It’s twenty minutes of moonlight, / And twenty minutes of sun. / Twenty old-favorite minutes, / Twenty minutes brand-new, / Read to your bunny often, / And … / Your bunny will read to you.”


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