The Word Gap

Words are so important. In my everyday work, words are extremely important. At WMU, we have editors and copy editors who check the words of writers like me. They make sure writers use the right words (Is it affect or effect? Ensure or insure?) when writing curriculum, articles, web content, and even this blog. Words are important in what we do every day at WMU as we develop missions materials for churches.

Words are important to preschoolers, also. They need to hear words in order to develop their language skills. Long before babies can say the words or three-year-olds can put a sentence together, they need to hear parents and other caregivers saying words and talking in conversation with the preschooler. They learn how to form the words and they develop their vocabulary as they hear words in a rich language environment.

Read books with preschoolers. Over and over.

It is alarming, then, to learn that there is a word gap among preschoolers. This is the difference in the number of words children from low-income families hear as compared to children from high-income families. Research shows that “by age three, children from low-income families are hearing 30 million fewer words then those from higher-income families.”1 This places preschoolers from disadvantaged families behind in language skills and makes an impact on their success later in elementary school.

This speaks to the importance of talking to preschoolers as they are in our care at church, beginning with babies, ones, and twos.

  • Let a baby see your face as you talk to him.
  • Repeat babble sounds of babies, and encourage them to repeat sounds.
  • While sitting with a baby or toddler, hold a book and name objects.
  • Point to objects in pictures from the Mission Friends Resource Kit and Pictures and say the names of objects.
  • Describe what the preschooler is doing, such as “You are reaching for the rattle,” or “You are nesting the cups.”
  • Sing songs and say rhymes with younger preschoolers. Preschoolers need to hear these over and over.
  • Say Bible thoughts during Mission Friends® sessions.
  • Use routine times of feeding and diapering to talk to the preschooler one-on-one.
  • Read simple books with younger preschoolers.
  • Talk about activities as you do them with babies, ones, and twos.

With threes, fours, and kindergartners, their language skills will grow as we continue to give them rich language experiences.

  • Play movement songs or games in which preschoolers listen for the next movement.
  • Ask questions such as “What happened first? What happened next?”
  • Offer choices. Say, “Do you want to make a drum like they play in Scotland, or do you want to build bridges with these cardboard strips?”
  • Name rhyming words.
  • Describe objects. Play “I spy.”
  • Read books with preschoolers. Over and over.
  • Compare objects: small, large; blue, red; smooth, rough.
  • Say Bible thoughts and talk about the meanings.
  • Use conversation during activities. Talk about the missionaries while preschoolers are engaged in activities.
  • Talk about the meaning when a new word is introduced.
  • Have preschoolers listen for a word or sound in the mission story.
  • Use different inflections in your voice when telling the mission story.
  • Repeat songs with preschoolers.
  • Say the words as you write charts with older preschoolers.
  • Repeat sentences back to the preschooler as he dictates a story about the missionary.

Words are so important. Let your preschoolers in Mission Friends hear a wide variety of words in many different ways. All preschoolers need to hear words in order to develop language skills. Our words make an impact on preschoolers’ development and growth. Let’s use our words to help bridge the word gap.


1Bridging the Word Gap Challenge, Health Resources & Services Administration,, accessed on January 26, 2016.

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