Do you remember “ sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? This was a popular saying many Black children used when they were in arguments with one another. It is actually an idiom, which is an overexaggerated phrase.  Certainly, I said it, and I rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth, as well. Whether the words did hurt or not, you still said it. If I can insert my opinion, I think those words did hurt most of the time. But, what is hurting children from Black and marginalized homes now is a lack of words! As a matter of fact, 30 million of them by the age of 3. This is the amount of words that separates Black children from economically disadvantaged homes from their White peers in vocabulary. And, Brown children don’t fall too far behind.

So, now you’re probably wondering where this idea of a 30-million word deficit that many Black families struggle with comes from. Well, here’s what happened. Two researchers decided to observe Black and White families in their homes to get an idea of how much conversation activity was shared between the parents and children. By the way, the children were 7 months to 3 years old. These observations happened over a period of time, and their conclusion was Black children from low-income families’ vocabulary level was half the size of their non-minority peers. Because of this, these children could be at a significant disadvantage in completing school, maintaining a good career, and negatively impacting their own family. If you’re interested in reading more about this research, please see the link I posted below.

With knowing this information now, do you plan on looking for ways to partner with your child/children to increase their vocabulary skills? If you’re like me, I’m always searching for avenues and ways to build my children’s reading toolkit. One important tool for children to have is a large and rich vocabulary, and then the second would be the skillset to use it. Yes, there are many vocabulary interventions available, however, I want to focus on one in particular which is, learning vocabulary through themes. What I mean by themes is basically choosing a topic and selecting words that relate to it. For example, I live in a region where it’s hurricane season now until November. Because of this, I began to teach my 8-year-old daughter words she may hear on TV or the radio relating to hurricanes such as: meteorologist, evacuate, evacuation, depression, and debris. I also incorporated activities for her to use these words in such as sentences or explaining to me in her own words what each of them mean.

Using themes can be fun, innovative, and creative for everyone. Parents and caregivers you have all the autonomy to choose what you want your child/children to learn about and how much they can learn about a certain topic keeping in mind grade level vocabulary words. Also, when choosing themes, make sure it is one that your child/children are interested in. Here are some ideas that you can begin sparking their interest with in their early childhood years.

  1. Holidays
  2. Weather/Natural Disasters
  3. Medical Terms
  4. Monthly Celebrations 
  5. Seasons of the Year

These ideas are just the beginning of an ongoing list of themes that can offer vocabulary learning on all grade levels. We have a very large task and a huge responsibility to minimize this deficit, and here’s a way to begin doing it by using this strategy. In Part 2 of this blog, which will be released next week, I will share 5 reasons why using themes as a vocabulary intervention is an important approach to building and improving vocabulary. If you have other ideas, please share them with us at or leave a comment below. For educational consulting, literacy coaching, small business setup, non-profit setup, dissertation coaching, and family educational guidance, please contact me, Dr. Z. at www.

Here is the research link I mentioned earlier:

Editing by

photo credit: Covid-19 via photopin (license)

photo credit: Hadock Endless WaterWorld via photopin (license)

photo credit: Deutsche Bank South Africa – Cape Town – The Shine Centre via photopin (license)

Dr. Zwila Martinez

2 thoughts on “One Fun and Creative Way to Reduce the 30-Million Word Deficit: Part 1

  1. Dr Z. is at it again! Just imagine how our students and children not having the words to detail their experiences, accomplishments, joys, fears, and prides. I took the time to look into the article to find that Hart & Risley (2003) stated that “In four years, an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words. As an educator in an urban community, I feel a sense of obligation to intervene and disrupt this perpetuating cycle for our welfare and working-class families.” The advice of using themes to help teach vocabulary is amazing and will help to advance our scholars. I also know that once a student has owned their learning and takes pride in their education, they will want to show what they know to their community. We should teach our youth that words formed together can be weaponized but we must also encourage them to use words to help prosper and secure a more serene community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.