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.
She and other experts say there are better ways for teachers to boost word understanding than by giving out weekly vocabulary lists and expecting students to memorize definitions.
“Students need to encounter words in different meaningful contexts and use these words in their own speech and writing in order to retain them,” said Camille Blachowicz, who co-directs the vocabulary instruction program and Reading Leadership Institute at National Louis University.
Classroom study of morphology — word parts like prefixes and suffixes — helps students figure out unknown words. But for students to become independent word-learners, they need broad exposure to the way words “work,” Blachowicz said.
Within any subject area, a teacher can help students conquer new words by having the class create a “flood” of words with meanings related to the new word.
“This is what word-aware parents do for lucky kids, and we need to do this for all students,” she said.
Some words can be quickly defined by a synonym or single example, she said — like “crown.” These can be quickly taught. Others, like “democracy” require focused instruction and time for students to absorb the word’s meaning through encountering it in more than one source and using it to describe personal experiences.
Blachowicz remembers going through this process to teach the word “nostalgia” to a group of fifth-graders. She could tell that one boy “owned” the new word when he said this:
“I feel such nostalgia for when I was a little kid, and rode my Big Wheel.”
The new Common Core state standards for education adopted by 46 U.S. states are intended to be more focused and stringent than the state standards they replace, and require complex reading skills. Meeting the standards will require word knowledge across a variety of subjects, Blachowicz said.
Students who read avidly boost their chances of doing well when tested on mastery of the standards, but most students don’t read enough, Clements said. So, Clements employs games and memory tricks to help students remember words that come up frequently in the readings found on standardized tests. She developed the Verbal Education video game as a study aid for students preparing to take the ACT or SAT.
Clements’ word-memory toolkit includes creating a visual image, rhyme or associative memory to go with a new word. To teach the word “egregious,” for example, she associates it with a word that starts the same way — “egg.”
“If you egg a house, that’s a bad thing to do — and that’s what egregious means,” she said.
At home and at school, Americans need to concentrate more on teaching verbal skills, and vocabulary comes first, Clements said. Her tips for parents include these:
Know how important vocabulary is
Play word games
Watch what your children are reading
Watch movies and television with your children and talk about unfamiliar words from the shows.
Given the data, perhaps another suggestion is pertinent — limit the amount of texting students do and encourage reading instead.
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