Knowledge, Poverty and Cognition

Background knowledge is crucial to a child's academic success. Young children need broad and deep exposure to informational text and rich vocabulary in order to develop more complex thinking skills.Using a task developed by Lomax and McGee (1987), a 5-year-old boy Daniel was asked to identify several objects and to describe their use. Specifically, the purpose of the assessment was to determine whether a child's involvement with objects like a calendar, grocery list, map, or letter in a literacy-related play setting might lead to greater understandings of functional print, defined as knowing the name of the object and knowing its purpose. Pointing to the business letter inside an envelope, he was asked "What's this?" "A mail," he said. Following the initial prompt, he was asked what the object could be used for. He did not respond. Continuing down the list to other literacy-related objects (i.e., a grocery list, a coupon), Daniel called them too "a mail."

At the time, it was assumed to be an instrumentation error — the instrument was obviously insensitive to a child's language and way with words. The decontextualized objects had, perhaps, lost their meaning. But it was also true that, although Daniel had been very active in the play office setting, he had not necessarily used the contents in meaningful ways or in a dramatic play. What was ignored in constructing this play setting was that Daniel needed more than theme-related objects. He needed to learn the words and some beginning understandings about what people might do in an office and why one might write a letter. He needed knowledge and vocabulary to convey his ideas. And with such instruction, Daniel would have begun to develop the narrative routines, the concepts, and the problem-solving strategies that are, in fact, related to reading success.

Hundreds of studies have now documented the dramatic, linear, negative relationships between poverty and children's cognitive-developmental outcomes. Before kindergarten begins, differences in cognitive skills between high-status and low-status children are, on average, 60 percent. Studies have documented large differences in children's receptive and expressive language skills; in children's ability to identify beginning sounds and letters, colors, and numbers; and in the number of words they have been exposed to prior to entering kindergarten. Therefore, if children's developing conceptual knowledge becomes subordinated to a focus on the relatively small number of necessary procedural skills early on, then the gap between socioeconomic status groups may widen with each successive grade level, building to insurmountable gaps after just a few years of schooling. It is the continual, systematic, everyday ways we engage children in learning new knowledge and information, starting in the early years, that makes a difference in literacy achievement.