Recent data verify what teachers have known all along. Students who possess strong vocabularies understand more of what they read.
And it works in reverse. Reading helps children learn new words that could help them understand the next thing they read. It's a chicken-and-egg scenario that self-replicates once it gets started.
The tricky part is figuring out how to boost these intertwined skills for a generation of kids whose preferred reading is as likely to be texts and tweets as textbooks and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Vocabulary and reading
The link between vocabulary and reading comprehension was verified by the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress, the most recent NAEP data available. The test, given every other year, is considered the most reliable source of nationwide education data. Starting in 2009, vocabulary received greater emphasis on the NAEP test, allowing researchers to see clear links between strong vocabularies and good reading comprehension.
In 2009 and 2011, the fourth- and eighth-graders who performed above the 75th percentile in reading comprehension on the NAEP also had the highest scores on the new vocabulary section of the test. The correlation between results caused educators to take a hard look at vocabulary development as a key to literacy. But how can kids fall in love with the world of words if their primary language exposure is built around sentences like this: “u r 2 funny, lol!"?
“Decades ago, we read because we didn’t have television and computers,” said Jeanne Clements, director of the Association of Language Arts Teachers of America. “Now, kids spend their spare time on social media. They don’t communicate in complete sentences, and everything is abbreviated. When they come face to face with a formal document, or have to deliver a well-written paragraph, they can’t do it.”
In 1984, 35 percent of students read almost daily for fun, according to U.S. Department of Education data. By 2004, only 22 percent did. A 2011 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project offered hints about what teens are doing instead. It found that 75 percent of all U.S. teens text — a lot. In 2011, the median number of texts sent on a typical day by teens ages 12-17 stood at 60.
By the time children enter school, their vocabularies already speak volumes, mostly about their economic backgrounds. In 1992, a groundbreaking study at the University of Kansas followed children of 42 families from various income levels, recording every word spoken to them.
After four years, children from high-income families were exposed to a stunning 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. Subsequent studies showed that these early differences in language, experience and interaction had lasting effects on a child’s performance at school and in life.
The differences in preschool word exposure foreshadow an NAEP reading-comprehension-score gap between high- and low-income students that persists throughout subsequent school years. Data from the 2011 test show that for fourth-graders, the gap was 31 points on a 0-500 scale, and 28 points for eighth-graders. Only 34 percent of all students at either grade level were deemed to be proficient readers. That suggests that about two-thirds of U.S. students don’t read well enough to learn effectively from their textbooks.
Building word sense
When a child enters school, teachers are tasked with ensuring that the student learns to read and, eventually, reads to learn. Strengthening weak vocabularies might play a key role in the process of bolstering reading comprehension. But most U.S. teacher training programs don’t offer much preparation for teaching vocabulary, Clements said.
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