Words and Books: Keys to Academic Success

When parents ask me how to improve their children’s academic success, I often want to shout, “Words and books!”

In my view, too few parents and children understand the importance of words and books as keys to academic success. Big words, little words, descriptive words, precise words. Big books, little books, fiction books, other books. Words and books matter for babies, toddlers, young children, teenagers. Words and books matter for English, history, science, and even math. Large vocabularies facilitate easy reading; avid reading facilitates the acquisition of even more words. Words and books work together to build academic success.
Love You ForeverChildren arrive at school with various levels of vocabulary knowledge. Some children know a large percentage of the words in their grade level vocabulary books even before the first day of school; other children know almost none of those words. A student’s performance on a vocabulary pre-test in September more often than not predicts the student’s academic success at year’s end, not just in language arts classes, but also in other courses.

“How do we best acquire new words?” you might ask. Babies and toddlers best acquire new words by talking and interacting with their parents. Older children acquire new words not only by verbal interactions, but also by reading books.

In this article, I focus on words and books as the keys to academic success. If I inspire just one family to increase their number of parent-child verbal interactions or the number of books their children read for pleasure, my time spent writing this article will be worthwhile.

Words in Pre-School Years

Thirty years ago vocabulary researchers Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. James Risley studied the vocabulary development of children from low, middle, and upper class families. Over the course of two and a half years, the researchers spent one hour per month recording all the speech interactions and utterances between the parents and young children in forty-two families.

Hart and Risley’s results reveal shocking disparities between the number of words heard by lower, middle, and upper class children. Children on welfare heard an average of 616 words per hour, children from working class families heard an average of 1,251 words per hour, and children from professional families heard an average of 2,153 words per hour. Astonishingly, Hart and Risley (1995) found that the vocabularies of four-year old children from professional families were larger than the vocabularies that the parents of the children living on welfare used when interacting with their children.

In their book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (1995), Hart and Risley note that according to their research, an average four-year-old child living in a family on welfare might hear 13 million fewer words that a child living in a working class family. The difference in numbers of words heard by children in lower and upper class families supplied the title for an article on Hart and Risley’s follow-up research: “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” (2005).

The vocabulary gap suffered by poor children persists beyond the preschool years and negatively affects academic achievement and career opportunities. To help improve the lives of poor children, the Thirty Million Words Initiative, led by Dana Suskind, M.D. of the University of Chicago is “an innovative parent-directed initiative designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and impact his or her future.” Buildingvocabulary is critical for the academic success of all children.

CaterpillerVocabulary in the School Years

Although educators agree that vocabulary growth is a key to academic success, educators debate whether to include regular vocabulary instruction as part of the curriculum. Margaret McKeown and Mary E. Curtis (1987), experts in the field of vocabulary instruction, note that although vocabulary instruction can provide rich encounters with a small number of words, only frequent and regular reading can provide repeated exposure to large numbers of words. Vocabularies grow best through repeated exposure to words in a wide variety of books, e-books, and other high quality reading material.

McKeown and Curtis point out that an average high school senior knows 40,000 words. If we divide that number by 18 years, we find vocabulary growth rate of 2, 222 words per year. McKeown and Curtis write,This astounding rate of vocabulary growth by average children sets a mark against which the contribution of any program of vocabulary instruction must be measured.” In their book, McKeown and Curtis make a case for building vocabulary via reading rather than via direct instruction. They write, “the single most important goal of vocabulary instruction should be to increase the amount of incidental word learning by students.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 11.02.45 AMFifteen years later, McKeown joined two other authors to write a book advertised as providing a “research-based framework and practical strategies for vocabulary development with children from the earliest grades through high school.” In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Beck, McKweon, and Kucan (2002, 2nd edition 2013) note the reality that (1) there is a four-fold vocabulary size difference between top students and lowest students upon high school graduation, and (2) many students do not read. The authors argue that because may students do not read, schools should provide direct vocabulary instruction, despite the fact that the most effective method of vocabulary acquisition is through reading.

The sad fact that many students do not read makes direct vocabulary instruction in schools a necessity for their academic success. If all students were avid readers, direct vocabulary instruction would not be necessary, except for instruction relating to word affixes, roots, and origins.

As teachers and parents, we must do all we can to encourage children to read widely and deeply. Children benefit from repeated exposure to words necessary for high levels of academic success. Children suffer when, for whatever reason, they choose not to read books for pleasure and academic success.

Today’s Challenge

Books on ShelfI fear that the lack of book reading among today’s students has risen to unacceptable levels. I am not alone in my fears. Today, as I am editing this article for publication, two major organizations are releasing studies about how technology is changing the way students learn. The study by Internet Project, a division of the Pew Research Center, surveyed 2,462 teachers about their students’ technology-related research. The other study, by Common Sense Media, surveyed 685 teachers about whether technology hurts students’ abilities, including their ability to write and communicate.

In Technology is Changing How Children Learn, Teachers Say, the New York Times quoted Jim Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, as follows: “Boy, is this a clarion call for a healthy and balanced media diet. * * * What you have to understand as a parent is that what happens in the home with media consumption can affect academic achievement.” I agree wholeheartedly with Jim Steyer’s statement that parents need to understand that media consumption at home can affect academic achievement at school.

I urge all parents to learn exactly what media their children are consuming during long hours online at home. Are their children engaging in sustained reading of a wide range of challenging material online? Are their children spending excessive hours watching silly YouTube videos? Are their children reading news articles or learning about technology?

I wish all parents well in their journeys to understand their children’s reading behaviors and online hours, and in their efforts to help their children understand the importance of words and books to academic success. During my teaching years, I did my best to help my students understand that books bring words, and words bring academic success. I hope my students continue to make choices consistent with their academic goals.


Beck, Isabel L, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan. (2002). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press: New York.

Hart, B., &​ Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The thirty million word gap by age three. American Educator, 27(1), 4-9. http:/​/​www.eric.ed.gov/​ERICWebPortal/​detail?accno=​EJ672461

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.

McKeown, Margaret, and Mary E. Curtis. (1987). The Nature of vocabulary Acquisition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: London.

Richtel, Matt. (2012). Technology is Changing How Children Learn, Teachers Say.  New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/education/technology-is-changing-how-students-learn-teachers-say.html


I first wrote this article for publication on November 2, 2012 on a now-unsearchable webpage on the TASIS England website. I have updated the article and added hyperlinks. I thank my students at TASIS for inspiring me to write the article, and I thank Cait of My Little Poppies for inspiring me to update it and post it here. The photos are mine, except for the screenshot of Bringing Words to Life.


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