To grow up as the child of well-educated parents in an affluent American home is to hit the verbal lottery. From their earliest days, these children reap the benefits of parents who speak in complete sentences, engage them in rich dinner table conversation, and read them to sleep at bedtime. Verbal parents chatter incessantly, offering a running commentary on vegetable options in the produce aisle, pointing out letters and words in storefronts and street signs. Parents proceed, as Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times once put it, “in a near constant mode of annotation.”
In sharp contrast, early disadvantages in language among low-income children—both the low volume of words they hear and the way in which they are employed—establish a verbal inertia that is immensely difficult to address or reverse. Schools will spend every moment trying to make up for the verbal gaps kids come to school with on Day One, which usually grow wider year after year.
When it comes to vocabulary, size matters. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. observed that vocabulary “is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities.” It signals competence in reading and writing and correlates with SAT success—which, in turn, predicts the likelihood of college attendance, graduation, and the associated wage premium that has been fetishized by education reformers and driven their agenda for decades.
But vocabulary is important even for kids whose pathway...