Poverty and the Educational Process – Part 3: Vocabulary and Cognition

[Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series on poverty and the educational process. Links to the previous blog posts are included below.]

Poverty has a multifaceted impact on both student engagement and student success in the classroom. Last time we looked at Effort and the Growth Mindset. In this post, we are going to address two more aspects of poverty that have wide-ranging repercussions for classroom performance – Vocabulary and Cognition.

To read Part 1 on Health and Nutrition, click here.

To read Part 2 on Effort and the Growth Mindset, click here.

Vocabulary – The Problems

Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds generally have smaller vocabularies than their middle-class peers, and this increases the risk for academic failure. According to Hart & Risley, (1995), children from low-income families hear, on average, 13 million words by age four, while middle-class children hear about 26 million words during that same time period, and upper-income children hear a staggering 46 million words.[1] Shockingly, toddlers from middle- and upper-income families used more words while talking to their parents than low-income mothers used in talking to their own children. This difference in vocabulary has an enormous impact on a child’s ability to succeed in the classroom environment.

Vocabulary is a necessary tool for the brain to aid in learning, memory, and cognition, as words help children represent, manipulate, and interpret information. Kids from low-income families are less likely to understand the words a teacher uses in the classroom or those that appear in grade-appropriate reading material. As a result, the students don’t want to read, often tune out, or lose hope, feeling like school is not meant for them and that they will never succeed. And since most students don’t want to risk looking stupid (especially to their peers), they refuse to participate in class and lose out on many educational opportunities.


Teachers at all grade levels must include vocabulary building as part of the learning process for all of their students, constantly introducing and using new words to build their students’ proficiency. One way to do this is to create “trading card” activities, where students write a vocabulary word on one side of a 3 × 5 card and a sentence (or two) that uses the word correctly on the other side. The teacher can pair students up and have them test each other, one providing the word and the other providing its usage; then they trade off roles for the next word. Teachers can draw cards from a bowl and ask members of the class to use the new word in a sentence. Or the teacher can divide the class into teams and have them engage in a friendly competition, with the winning group receiving a small prize. All teams should be rewarded with positive affirmations on their performances, with constructive suggestions (and a hearty “you can do it”) for those who did not perform well.

Teachers can also incorporate vocabulary practice into daily classroom rituals. For example, the teacher posts a word for the day on the board, and when either the teacher or a student uses it – and another student is first to point it out – the two students get a simple privilege. The teacher should reinforce all the words introduced for days and weeks afterward, until they become a standard part of the students’ vocabularies.

There are also reading programs, such as the AceReader, which include vocabulary exercises as part of the learning to read/reading to learn process. Vocabulary can be run as a Drill, or it can be incorporated into one of the Games, where students compete against themselves to learn more words. AceReader is also customizable by teachers, so they can introduce their own class-specific vocabulary terms into the program to use with their students.

Cognition – The Problems

Bradley & Corwyn (2002) discovered that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often perform below those from higher levels on tests of intelligence and academic achievement, and Alloway, Gathercole, Kirkwood, & Elliott (2009) found that low-SES children often display cognitive problems such as short attention spans, high levels of distraction, difficulty monitoring the quality of their work, and difficulty generating new solutions to problems. All of these issues can make school harder for them than for their higher-income peers.[2]

As we discussed in the last post, children who struggle cognitively either act out (display problem behaviors) or exhibit learned helplessness. However, cognitive capacity, like a growth mind-set, is a teachable skill; teachers who work hard to help their students overcome their difficulties often see positive results both in and out of the classroom.


To help students increase their cognitive abilities, first focus on the core academic skills that they need across the different subject areas. Start with basic concepts, such as how to organize their thinking and material; take notes and study effectively; prioritize their tasks; and remember key ideas. Only then move on to problem-solving, processing, and working-memory skills. Remember to engage the students so that they think critically about what they’re doing. This will help them gain a deeper understanding of the concepts they’re learning, as well as help them apply the learning process to any new material they encounter.

Remember to start small. Teach students immediate recall of words, then phrases, then whole sentences. Link these to the directions you give in class so they will learn to follow ideas and processes. It will take a great deal of encouragement, positive feedback, and persistence, but reassure the students that they can do it. Later, you can use this foundation to build higher-level skills.



[1] As described in Jenson, Eric. (May 2013). How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement. ACSD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may13/vol70/num08/How-Poverty-Affects-Classroom-Engagement.aspx

[2] As described in Jenson, Eric. (May 2013). How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement. ACSD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may13/vol70/num08/How-Poverty-Affects-Classroom-Engagement.aspx


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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