The Correlation between Poverty and Illiteracy

This article is an excerpt from Success for Every Student: A Guide to Teaching and Learning, by Shelly Pollnow and Oran Tkatchov, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, all rights reserved. Success for Every Student is packed full of tools and tips in everything from classroom management to formative assessment that give busy teachers what they need to become more efficient and effective professionals in their classrooms and schools.

There is a direct correlation between poverty and illiteracy. Per the Literacy Project Foundation, three out of four people on welfare cannot read. Fifty percent of unemployed individuals between 16 and 21 years of age are not considered literate. On the flip side, as the literacy rate doubles, so doubles the per capita income.

Based on findings from a 1995 study, an average preschool child from a professional family was provided experiences with 11 million words per year, a working-class family six million words, and a family living in poverty three million words (Hart & Risley, 1995). A more recent study (Reardon & Portilla, 2016) has shown this gap to have closed by around 10 percent, but the difference of preschooler word knowledge based on parent income is still unacceptable.

Vocabulary attainment in early grades is a significant predictor of reading comprehension ten years later (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Phillips, Gormley, & Anderson, 2016). Students with limited vocabulary in the third grade have diminished comprehension scores at the end of elementary school (Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990). The more vocabulary a child possesses early in life, the higher chance of academic success later in life.

It is the role of every teacher, not just the English teacher, to effectively teach vocabulary. Vocabulary, like background knowledge, is needed to truly comprehend a topic or skill. Many content areas, especially mathematics, social studies and science, have deep reading components that depend on understanding content-specific vocabulary (Gaston, Martinez, & Martin, 2016). For example, to truly master mathematics, students must not only know symbolic notation, graphs and visual displays, but they also must understand how mathematical terms like volume and angle are similar or different when used in a mathematics setting compared to other content areas (Meiers & Trevitt, 2010). Because new words come up in all subject areas, no matter the grade or the subject, it is necessary that all teachers know how to explicitly and effectively teach vocabulary.

Researchers postulate that explicit instruction in vocabulary achieves positive results for diverse populations of students, including those with disabilities (Rosenshine, 1986; Archer, 2007). Explicit instruction means structured and systematic teaching that uses an effective methodology (Archer & Hughes, 2010).

Unfortunately, research shows that explicit vocabulary instruction is not a daily practice in many classrooms (Dunn, Bonner, & Huske, 2007; Herzfeldt-Kamprath & Ullrich, 2016). For example, a teacher who puts up a word wall but does not directly teach those words is not explicitly helping the learner master new vocabulary. Asking students to find the definitions of words in a dictionary is also, on its own, ineffective. Studies have shown that around 60 percent of students incorrectly use a word if only a dictionary definition is given (Hatzivassiloglou & McKeown, 1993).

Anita Archer and other researchers suggest explicitly teaching words that are necessary to understand the concept, but more importantly words that the students will see again, connecting to real-world application versus simply the academic setting. As a member of a school team, grade level team, or individually, educators can create a list of important words to teach or utilize predetermined word lists like the Coxhead Academic Word List.

For explicitly teaching a single vocabulary word, teachers should first provide a description and example of the new term. Next, the students restate the description or example in their own words. This is important as they attach their own background knowledge to the new term. Finally, the teacher creates opportunities for the students and himself/herself to use the word in conversation or within lessons. Repeatedly saying and using a word allows students to have a better grasp of the term and store it into memory (Fay & Cutler, 1977).

Students can also represent the new words in linguistic and nonlinguistic forms. One way to represent a word in a nonlinguistic form is by using visual imagery, or a visual representation (a picture or drawing) of the word. Studies have shown that students who used imagery when learning vocabulary performed 37 percentile points higher than students who were just asked to continuously repeat the definition and 21 percentile points higher than students who used the new words only in complete sentences (Marzano & Pickering, 2005). Visual imagery can also assist students in strengthening relationships between words and noticing small differences in word meaning (Huey & Swinehart, 2015). Having students draw a picture of a word might seem silly, especially in the upper grades, but it is an effective technique to add to vocabulary instruction.