"A Matter of Vocabulary": Performances of Low-Income African American Head Start Children on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III

By Champion, Tempii B.; Hyter, Yvette D. et al. | Communication Disorders Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

"A Matter of Vocabulary": Performances of Low-Income African American Head Start Children on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III


Champion, Tempii B., Hyter, Yvette D., McCabe, Allyssa, Bland-Stewart, Linda M., Communication Disorders Quarterly


Forty-nine 3- to 5-year-old African American children enrolled in Head Start were assessed using the third edition of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (Dunn & Dunn, 1997). Their mean score (86.84, SD = 10.96) was significantly lower than the mean for the normative sample, despite the fact that the test's normative sample included minority children. An item analysis revealed that few items were systematically missed by most children. Instead, performance seemed reflective of socioeconomic and/or ethnic patterns of vocabulary usage. Educational and clinical implications are discussed.

In order to learn how to read and comprehend what they are reading, children need a substantial vocabulary, as numerous prior studies have attested (see Scarborough, 2001, for review). For example, in one large-scale longitudinal study that involved numerous measures of the abilities of preschool Head Start children, receptive vocabulary in kindergarten was one of four measures that predicted fourth-grade and seventhgrade reading comprehension, and it was the strongest of the four predictors (Tabors, Snow, & Dickinson, 2001).

The size of children's vocabulary not only directly predicts their later reading comprehension performances, it arguably makes an indirect contribution as well. A number of theorists have maintained that when a child's vocabulary at tains a certain size, this vocabulary "creates an implicit need for making comparisons between similar-sounding words ("lexical restructuring theory;' Goswami, 2001, p. 111). Thus, the size of a child's vocabulary plays an indirect role in enabling the acquisition of reading via stimulating the development of phonological awareness, another key predictor of reading acquisition (see Scarborough, 2001, for a review).

When children enter kindergarten, they bring with them home language skills that support the acquisition of language to widely varying degrees. Families differ considerably in the extent to which home language skills are congruent with the language skills expected of their children at school. Of particular interest to the present project was the fact that some families of Head Start children expose their children to a rich variety of rare words and various kinds of definitions for those words, whereas other such families neither expose children to rare words nor explain these words when they do occur (Tabors, Beals, & Weizman, 2001).

Families in the Tabors, Beals, and Weizman (2001) study had children enrolled in Head Start due to economic disadvantages. Research has shown that poverty affects language skills in a variety of ways that can influence performance on standardized tests and the academic performance those tests predict. The experiences that children who live in poverty bring to school often do not match experiences upon which tests are based, which can result in low performance on standardized measures (Hart & Risley, 1995; Penia, Iglesias, & Lidz, 2001; Stockman, 2000; Washington & Craig, 1999). This low performance may be particularly true when assessing vocabulary or word knowledge, the latter of which is influenced by cultural experiences (Stockman, 2000). In other words, children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and cultural or linguistically diverse groups may not have experience with or exposure to words that educators in schools expect them to know (Hart & Risley, 1995; Stockman, 2000). In particular, Hart and Risley documented that children in impoverished families receive substantially less linguistic input than do children from middle class families. After extensive observations, Hart and Risley (1995) estimated that at the age of 4 years, "an average child in a middle class family would have accumulated experience with almost 45 million words ... [whereas] an average child in a welfare family would have accumulated experience with 13 million words" (p. 198). Moreover, the input that children of poverty do receive is 80% discouraging or prohibiting of behavior (and thus unlikely to result in vocabulary expansion), in contrast to the 80% positive, affirmative, encouraging feedback that children from families that are better off receive. …

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