Prelude: It turns out that writing a blog, even just one entry, is more fun than I ever imagined. My humble thanks to everyone who has read the blog and/or offered a comment.
Walking through the Ancona Library the other day, I heard Miss Marsha, our Librarian, buzzing like a bee and growling like bear, so I thought I’d stop and see what was going on. She was reading a Big Book — a book big enough for everyone to see easily — to a group of three and four-year-olds in her most animated storyteller voice. She paused and pointed to a picture, asking the children what it was. Several children called out fly; some called out bug; and one young voice said dragonfly, which it was.
The child who knew she was looking at a dragonfly possesses a valuable form of learning capital: background knowledge. Because she already recognizes a dragonfly, she has a head start on understanding the story and on recognizing the word when she comes across it in print. A recent New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/nyregion/specialized-high-school-admissions-test-is-racially-discriminatory-complaint-says.html?_r=1 examined the link between vocabulary development and possible bias in high school admissions testing. The author quoted the education theorist E. D. Hirsch saying there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.
What does it take to give a child a great head start with background knowledge? Things that are both free and precious: time, patience and experience. Real conversations with children build their vocabularies and their understandings of the world. They bring those rich vocabularies to their early reading experiences. Montessori and Progressive schools emphasize experience to create these authentic learning connections for children, but parents play a critical role, too.
Just think about a trip to the gas station. What is a pump? How does it work? Where does the gas come from? What is gas, anyway? Why does the car need it? What is fuel? What’s a gauge? What other things need fuel?
Or think about making pancakes. How do we get eggs and milk? What are the parts of an egg? How is wheat turned into flour? What is maple syrup? Why do we beat the eggs? Why do we measure the ingredients? The possibilities are endless. Such conversations not only develop a child’s vocabulary, they develop her curiosity, her competence and her sense of wonder about the world.
We know from brain science that emotional connections facilitate learning, so learning with one’s parent is powerful. On a hike in a Wisconsin nature reserve a few weeks ago, I saw a mother wade deep into the prairie flowers to carefully examine a bug with her preprimary-aged child. They looked at its markings, talked about its wings and antennae, discussed what it was doing on its leaf and looked around to find more. There is no workbook page or app that can substitute for that kind of experience (although, a mobile device could be very useful for identifying the bug if you don’t know what it is.).
There are no limits to these kinds of conversations, either. I had a high school friend who is now an M.I.T. physicist. His father was also a scientist, and I can remember him telling me as I struggled with physics that he simply grew up understanding the 1st Law of Thermodynamics. Now that’s some background knowledge!