What Are We, Chopped Liver?

The literature of schooling – self-styled “education” by its proponents – is a literature which at best ignores parents, and often disparages their participation. We parents are left asking “What are we, chopped liver?”

There is a certain bitter amusement to read of the “30 million word” research, that educators spent so much effort trying in their schools to improve the vocabulary of young children, to find that some other factor was vastly more important: namely, the parents.

We parents – rich and poor, all shades of skin color and ancestry, of all religions and no religion – are with our children approximately 110 waking hours per week, during their first three or four years of life. (If not we, then caregivers have that responsibility.)

It turns out that some of our children hear, on average, only 600 words per waking hour, and most of those are simple orders: do this, don’t do that, come here. Other children, on average, hear more than three times as many words, most of which are interactive conversation – look at this bright yellow blanket! look at the bear and camel and cow! – even when the child’s part of the interaction is not verbal, but consists of smiles and giggles.

This research began when researchers were testing the vocabulary of students in their little schools, and discovered that some children were picking up far more new words per week than others – words which were no part of the school environment – words which had to be introduced by some outside source. They went exploring, and discovered that other source: the home.

The home has the power to dominate the school, by introducing words and other concepts early and often and consistently. This, according to research, accounts for much of the “socioeconomic effect” or the “achievement gap” – and it is within your power, as parents – even if you are poor and part of a minority.

Your power to increase your child’s vocabulary is not in the use of flash cards and formal workbooks – which you can use if you like – but in interactive conversation and play. Your power is also in your ability to create a positive learning environment.

Richard Elmore, who describes typical classroom practice as “point for point, exactly the opposite of what we know about how children learn,” elaborated in a later interview. Children learn not only the “new idea” or “new fact,” but the emotional context of the learning. If that is a high-stress, negative, high-consequence environment, they learn to be afraid. This is what is called “avoidance therapy” – the association of a negative emotion with an idea.

This is not the method to encourage children to love learning; it is a method to teach them to get out of an uncomfortable environment.

One of the first lessons learned by successful homeschoolers is this: don’t replicate the high-stress environment of the school in your home. Instead, you and your child should enjoy the process. Second, start early and often. Talk early and often. Talk about numbers and counting and everyday math in everyday words. The child who learns to group things together, to simplify addition by grouping, is the child who can learn to love math. Third, interact. Don’t be the “sage on the stage.” Don’t let TV or videos do all the talking. Do you and your child talk about videos and books and other things? Is it safe and fun to have these conversations? If so, your child will be delighted to learn many things and to share them with you.

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