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At A Loss For Words: How America Is Failing Our Children And What We Can Do About It


reviewed by Sara McCormick Davis - 2006

coverTitle: At A Loss For Words: How America Is Failing Our Children And What We Can Do About It
Author(s): Betty Bardige
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1592133932, Pages: 254, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com


Betty Bardige’s book, “At a Loss for Words: How America Is Failing Our Children and What We Can Do About It,” is a timely examination of how vocabulary development impacts young children’s success in school.  Dr. Bardige doesn’t just identify the issue, but she also explores the multiple layers that make this a complex problem. The book is a powerful argument for better funding of quality childcare and early childhood education programs. The argument is contextualized through scenarios addressed by describing successful programs and is mapped out for action. Many books have been published in the past five years that critique and analyze the issues surrounding language development and its connection to school success.  “At a Loss for Words” carefully peels back the many layers, shows how they are interconnected, and explains how each layer can be understood for advocacy. Policy makers, program designers, teacher educators, teachers, and childcare providers will be able to use this book as a rich resource.


The book begins with a deceptively simple question, “Why do some students learn easily and joyfully while others in the same classrooms continue to struggle” (p. 3)?

Two children, one from a family with discretionary income and one from a family struggling to make ends meet, are described to represent the socioeconomic groups most often seen in childcare and school programs. These two children are both healthy, well developed, and are the oldest child in their families. They are followed through their morning routine and into their school day in childcare.  As we quickly learn, income, profession, education, primary language, and family support systems are only a few of the reasons children don’t come to school with equal foundations, but the issues don’t stop there. Teacher education, childcare center curriculum, and governmental policies also come into play, impacting these two children and millions like them.


Once the stage is set, Bardige lays out the research that supports her focus on language and vocabulary development. In chapter 2: Prime Time for Language Learning, language development milestones are described as markers for the central argument which is, “differences that matter are vocabulary—the aspect of language that gets measured in IQ assessments and college admission tests—and “expressiveness,” the extent to which language is used" (p. 26).  Examples of supportive educational programs and teacher behavior are described, weaving in the research that grounds the focus on vocabulary development.


Early in chapter 3: Why Language Matters, Bardige writes, “Early educators and parents who urge children to “use your words” are laying a strong foundation for emotional intelligence" (p. 33). She goes on to argue that vocabulary development doesn’t just impact academic success but also builds an emotional foundation for transitions, social development, good mental health, and other factors that impact the ability to learn. The social aspects of vocabulary development are also tied to resiliencies through the description of a longitudinal case study. Bardige weaves these stories of real children and families throughout the book, bringing the research and theory to life.


In chapters 4 and 5: Supporting Early Language at Home and Supporting Early Language in Group Care, Dr. Bardige makes it very clear that educating parents and teachers is absolutely essential for children’s vocabulary development. Many examples and suggested activities show that integrating these activities can be a natural and powerful way to “teach.”  “Deliberate teaching is in the end less important than a relationship that is characterized by warmth, active listening, and mutual delight” (p. 55).


All the chapters up to this point have touched on vocabulary development and second language learners, but chapter 6: You Don’t Speak My Language takes a closer look at the political decisions about bilingual education and the impact those policies are having on young children. Bardige describes how well prepared preschool teachers can support second language learners, but she also makes the point that these teacher behaviors are difficult to learn and use consistently in the current climate. No words are minced when she writes, “Depriving children of opportunities to practice a language and improve their proficiency and then trying to reteach it to them as a high school course seems like a waste of time" (p. 83).


In Part II: The Quiet Crisis, Bardige goes back to the first children described in the book to describe the quality of childcare available to families on a daily basis. It is clear that higher socioeconomic families can find excellent early education; whereas, impoverished families may be lucky to get their children into a quality program. Contextual, statistical information is used to show that at all levels—family childcare, center care, and preschools—are struggling to create the quality of care children must have to succeed.   Chapter 8: The Perfect Storm presents facts about the many issues facing our society; among these are more women working longer hours, more single parents and teen parents, increased child poverty, greater income gaps, immigration, and fewer adults in children’s lives. Unfortunately, it’s also very clear that we have not met these issues with increased funding; and that by not paying attention to these needed services we are facing a crisis that will touch all aspects of our society. Chapter 9: Truth, Justice, and the American Way extends these issues by presenting the arguments for and against parental responsibility, equal opportunities for women versus mother care for children, paid child care versus parent care, and public programs versus parent choice. All of this is further complicated by the belief that there is a dichotomy between nature and nurture—an argument we still seem to be having even in the face of new brain research and a general acceptance of the ecological aspects of our lives.


Fortunately, Bardige describes successful policies and programs in part 3: Changing Course. By part 3 we may be wringing our hands and thinking that we are up against impossible odds; however, Dr. Bardige presents many proven ideas, successful programs, and other examples of how communities have solved their childcare problems.

One program described is The Parent Services Project (PSP). This model brings parents into the program from the beginning by supporting problem solving solutions that come directly from the parent’s identified needs.


Parental support, improving programs for children, and systematic, sustainable high quality programs, round out the book’s strong ending arguments. “We know what our children need, and we know how to provide it” (p. 87). This statement guides us into the easy to read and use tables of suggestions, ideas, and programs available for our advocacy work.


Hopefully, those not directly involved in childcare settings or preschool education will not discount this book because of its focus on the earliest ages. Betty Bardige directly connects these issues to what elementary teachers and beyond will have to deal with if children come to school unprepared to communicate and comprehend what they read. By empowering parents, caregivers, teachers, and others, Dr. Bardige has definitely begun the process to make sure “every child begins school with a wealth of words.”



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 866-868
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12124, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:41:27 AM

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About the Author
  • Sara Davis
    Portland State University
    E-mail Author
    SARA M DAVIS is an Assistant Professor in Curriculum and Instruction at Portland State University.
 
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