Connecticut Families Extra: Fiction fights the 30 million word gap

Connecticut Families

(WTNH) — Academic experts say that the more words kids know by kindergarten, the better they will perform academically. But how do different kinds of children’s books impact vocabulary?

It’s known as the 30 million word gap. That’s how many more vocabulary words children of wealthier parents master by kindergarten, compared to those from lower-income families.

Why is that critical? Because the more words children master when they’re young, the better they do academically throughout school.

Even adults have to think harder when confronted with situations out of the ordinary. This is especially true with young children whose imaginations light up when reading books about something new.

Deena Weinberg, PhD., led a recent study, which included teaching preschool children words in fantasy books or reality-based words in fiction books. Then the kids were tested to see which genre better enriched their word retention.

Dr. Weinberg said, “We had some books about farming and some books about dragons and we were picking words that we thought would fit within those contexts, also fitting our requirement that they be tier two vocabulary.”

Turns out kids internalized more words when faced with fantasy scenarios, possibly because they had to use more reasoning skills. It’s called ‘imaginative cognition’. For example, when dragons or super-heroes jump off the page, it’s out-of-the-ordinary, so kids think more about these scenarios, which then triggers new word usage and retention.

“One very live hypothesis is interest. The things that are happening in fantasy books are, by definition, the things that are not happening in reality. And so, that just might be more interesting to these children,” Dr. Weinberg added.

So parents, give your child various choices of books: dragons and super-heroes, as well as more ‘real-life’ scenarios. Continually use new vocabulary words. They get better when they up their game. Encourage children to retell the storybook to you in their own words, using fiction to build your child’s word knowledge.

Although it makes sense that fantasy-based books are more likely to trigger kids’ imaginations, more research is needed to pinpoint the exact cause behind this latest theory about vocabulary enrichment.

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