Children who enter kindergarten with a small vocabulary don’t get taught enough words—particularly, sophisticated academic words—to close the gap, according to the latest in a series of studies by Michigan early-learning experts.

The findings suggest many districts could be at a disadvantage in meeting the increased requirements for vocabulary learning from the Common Core State Standards, said study co-author Susan B. Neuman, a professor in educational studies specializing in early-literacy development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“Vocabulary is the tip of the iceberg: Words reflect concepts and content that students need to know,” Ms. Neuman said. “This whole common core will fall on its face if kids are not getting the kind of instruction it will require.”

In an ongoing series of studies of early-grades vocabulary instruction, Ms. Neuman and co-author Tanya S. Wright, an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, analyzed how kindergarten educators choose and teach new words, both in the instruction that teachers give and in basal-reading books.

Ms. Neuman and Ms. Wright found limited vocabulary instruction across the board, but students in poverty—the ones prior research shows enter school knowing 10,000 fewer words than their peers from higher-income families—were the least likely to get instruction in academically challenging words.

The Michigan studies are “immensely valuable in calling attention to the problem, and to the way early-literacy instruction fails to overcome the verbal gaps between demographic groups,” said E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.

Mr. Hirsch has written extensively about the essential role of background knowledge, including the words and concepts common to “culturally literate” Americans, in children’s education. In an essay published in the Winter 2013 issue of City Journal, Mr. Hirsch argues that expanding students’ vocabulary is “the key to upward mobility,” for example, because college-entrance exams such as the ACT and the SAT and military exams such as the Armed Forces Qualification Test demand such knowledge.

Vocabulary is a deceptively simple literacy skill that researchers and educators agree is critical to students’ academic success, but which has proved frustratingly difficult to address.

Continue reading about common core requirements for vocabulary learning.

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