Positive Parenting: Fiction fights the 30 million-word gap


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 Weisberg, PhD, a development psychologist at Villanova University, 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.

"We had some books about farming and some books about dragons, and we found some words that we thought would fit within those contexts, while also fitting our requirement that they be tier two vocabulary," explained Weisberg.

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.

Weisberg told Ivanhoe, "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."

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.

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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