Specifying the nature of the vocabulary gap through children’s word learning skills
Currently, a serious gap in vocabulary development and knowledge exists between children of higher socioeconomic status (SES) and their less advantaged peers. An important finding highlighted that children of higher SES know 600 more words on average than children form lower SES backgrounds. This disparity in vocabulary knowledge puts children from low SES backgrounds at a significant disadvantage when entering school because vocabulary is an essential tool for later school success. However, this ‘gap’ has only been described in terms of the number of words known by children. This is unlikely to wholly reflect their vocabulary knowledge and potential for learning. We looked to word learning strategies as way to further explore the nature of this ‘vocabulary gap’ as word-learning skills have been implicated as a significant factor in mediating the relationship between early experiences and vocabulary knowledge. The goal of this study was to examine the relationship between significant SES factors on children’s word learning skills. Such information could significantly contribute to creating better vocabulary intervention approaches for at-risk children and further inform our understanding of the ‘vocabulary gap’. Research goals were explored by having 145 2 ½ to 3 ½ year old subjects participate in 3 different word learning tasks. We selected particular tasks that were well documented in the literature, could be easily implemented within our target age range, had strong face validity, reflected a variety of types of information that children might use in word learning, and were relevant to the core challenges children face as they develop vocabulary. Results indicated that performance on one word-learning task, Mutual Exclusivity, was significantly associated with both of our indicators of SES, maternal education (r = .33, p < .001) and income (r = .30, p < .01). Children’s performance on the Gaze following task was only significantly associated with maternal education (r = .27, p < .01). These results indicate that the ‘vocabulary gap’ can be further specified by some, but not all, children’s word-learning skills. Future research should include studies of intervention based in word-learning skills like Mutual Exclusivity to help children further generalize vocabulary development.