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Lily Eskelsen's picture

Ah, where to begin this tale? I was in the ladies’ room in the airport. Honestly, I was minding my own business. Honestly, I wasn’t eavesdropping on the next stall. On purpose.

Honestly, this is what I heard from the young mother to her child. “Stephanie, can you explain to Mommy your sudden objection to going potty?”

Now. Put aside the fact that this child is going to have inevitable problems of various sorts which may require her to recall this conversation on a therapist’s couch someday, but I was particularly interested in Stephanie and her Mommy because the week before I had been in the kitchenware department of Bed, Bath & Beyond where I heard, quite clearly, this exchange between another Mommy and little Timmy who could not have been three years old, and who had just picked up a rolling pin and was using it on floor like a steam roller while he made varooom, varooom noises:

“Timmy, that’s a rolling pin. Can you say ‘rolling pin’?”

Timmy says, “ohling in”.

Timmy’s mom looks as if Timmy has just won a full-ride scholarship to Princeton and follows with, “Can you tell Mommie the properties of a rolling pin?”

Ok, Timmy just continues pushing the rolling pin, crashing it into the display case upsetting the goblets that were on sale 3 for $5 because, after all, Timmy is 2 and a half and doesn’t care about the properties of a rolling pin anymore than you or I do, but here’s my point.


Timmy and Stephanie are going to have a mighty fine vocabulary when they reach kindergarten. Say what you will about helicopter parents who hover over their baby cargo, they are giving their children an amazing advantage by giving them a treasure of words. Words in the mind of a child are the seeds of ideas. Words help a child express himself and understand others.

Words can be combined in infinite possibilities to create narratives and explanations and questions and answers. The more words in your head, the more you understand what you read. And reading is the key to success in school.

Studies show that affluent children reach kindergarten with a vocabulary of thousands of more words than children in poverty. The reasons are many. More affluent families are more likely to have parents with more advanced education and more education often means a more sophisticated vocabulary.

More affluent parents are more likely to have the luxury of time with their children to play and talk and discover whereas poor families might be headed more often by single parents working two or three jobs and older siblings taking care of younger siblings.

The point is, there is often a major gap in the skills children bring with them the first day they walk through the door of a school.

One of those gaps is in the basic vocabulary of the child. How many words does the child recognize? How many do they use? It’s a complicated but fundamental challenge to overcome.

But overcome it, we must. There is so much more we understand these days about what children need to succeed in school.

Even at the earliest years, they need to talk and to listen and to be asked questions and to be heard. To achieve this, a teacher will need a small enough class size to have these meaningful experiences with individual children.

A teacher will need books and books and books to read and explore and point to the pictures.

A teacher will need to gather up children and put them on the yellow school bus and take them to the park or the museum or the bread factory and show them things that aren’t in books and ask them questions they have to think about and have them ask each other questions about things they want to know about.

A teacher will need time to meet with parents and guardians to give them ideas about simple things they can do at home to stimulate conversations over dinner or before bedtime or in the tiny times of everyday when the parent and child are together.

Timmy and Stephanie are lucky to have wonderful, if perhaps overly-structured, parents. I always want to see parents relax and have fun with their children. I think parents who obsess over grades and test scores are missing the best part of parenting and their children are missing the best part of them, but bless them all; they want the best for their child.

I’ve never met a parent who didn’t. There is not a gap in caring between affluent and poor families. But there is often a gap in words, and it’s an important one to address as early as possible.

For children and parents who are counting on their public school as perhaps the only door to something better, we know what they need, because it’s what every child needs.

They need preschool, small class sizes, lots of books, lots of individual attention, lots of time to talk, lots of time to listen, lots of time to ask questions, lots of time to explore lots of answers, and they need to have fun while they’re doing it. Parents and teachers need time to meet and plan and make sure both are taking advantage of every learning opportunity inside and outside the home.

In public schools, our students come to us from very different worlds. They don’t come in ready-to-succeed packages where you add some standardized ingredient and stir. Some need a little more of this. Some need a little more of that.

They will all need enough words to say something that needs to be said. Let’s begin there.

(Here are some resources to begin: Larry James' Urban Diary and 50 Ways to Close the Achievement Gap)

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