I was amazed, when I started digging into children's reading, to learn that one group that is conducting a lot of research on reading is the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Why would they be researching reading? Because they determined that "difficulties learning to read are not only an educational problem; they constitute a serious public health concern" (Lyon, 2000). Unresolved difficulties in reading can result in such negative life-long outcomes that it is now considered a public health concern.
One area in which reading difficulties have a negative impact on someone's life is in vocabulary development. Of course, we need to have a strong vocabulary, not only to be able to read fluently, but to be able to express ourselves clearly verbally and in writing. Vocabulary development is highly susceptible to what is known as "the Matthew effect", which is basically the concept of the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Children who can read well typically enjoy reading more than students who struggle to read. As a result, students who read well typically read more than students who struggle. And, of course, reading more makes these students even more proficient readers, while those who struggle and don't read as much do not make much gains in their reading abilities. The gap between good readers and poor readers just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Now, apply this principle to vocabulary development. Reading is one primary way in which people acquire vocabulary. Therefore, those who read more add more words to their vocabulary.
I was troubled a few years ago to see a chart by noted dyslexia researcher, Sally Shaywitz, that showed the differences in how many words a good reader, reading for 20 minutes a day, will read in a year (1.8 million words) as opposed to a struggling reader who reads, on average, less than a minute a day (8,000 words). It showed me how reading every day is absolutely critical. This year, I have taken a class on vocabulary development. Applying typical vocabulary acquisition rates to these reading rates implies that a top reader could acquire 1,800 words in a year while that struggling reader will probably only acquire about 8 words through his reading.
The good news is that we, as educators, can do something about this. Recent research has shown that both struggling readers and accomplished readers acquire vocabulary at the same rate when the text is read to them. We can help erase that "Matthew effect", at least as it applies to vocabulary, by reading to our children and explaining to their parents why it is so very important that they do the same.
|from "Overcoming Dyslexia" by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.|
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