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Vital Vocabulary


Above vocabulary foldable courtesy of Laura Candler

Why teach vocabulary?

There’s no hyperbole in saying:

Vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school.

— W.B. Elley

Vocabulary matters.  It really, really matters.  In a recent study, researchers took a look at how we measure text complexity.  What they found is that students “with a sufficient lexicon” can understand more difficult texts.

This isn’t news to teachers.

We see it all the time with readers who struggle to make the transition from picture book to chapter book or in the faces of children who just read a chapter in their books and give you blank stares when asked about what happened.  In order to read and comprehend at higher levels, students have to be able to instantly recognize and understand words.  If they can’t do that, then the directions their lives can take are fairly limited.

For many students, acquiring vocabulary is an effortless process.  They hear a wide variety of words spoken in the home.  These words become part of the student’s oral vocabulary.  The more words you know, the easier it is to learn new words.  So if a student with a large oral vocabulary is a good reader, words encountered in texts are easily acquired and—hey, presto!—you’ve got an advanced student.

But for your most at risk kids, this connection doesn’t happen.

Educational researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risely were frustrated when their early intervention program for students in poverty didn’t seem to be making up the achievement gap in the 4-year-olds they worked with, they started looking earlier.  Their was an achievement gap among 3-year-olds.  How far back did it start?  That’s what they set to find out.

They identified forty-two “normal” Kansas City families that ranged in socio-economic status. Starting when the children were 7 months, researches visited the homes for 1 hour a month for the next 2 1/2 years.  The conversations in the homes were recorded, transcribed, and evaluated.

One surprising finding was that, regardless of income level, most families were doing the same things with their children.  Their was no shortage of love and care; the children looked at in this study weren’t neglected.

In her book Accelerated Vocabulary Instruction, Nancy Akhavan summarized the findings of the study:

They found that by the time children were 3 years old, the number of words they knew, and the types of language interactions they had with their parents, predicted later school success.  By 3 years old, children from homes of professional parents had accumulated vocabularies of approximately 1,100 words, children from working-class families knew approximately 750 words, and children from homes receiving public assistance knew 520 words (Hart & Risely, 2003).

The differences in children’s 3 year old vocabularies were due in large part to the number of words they heard in an hour and the richness of those words.  Children in homes receiving public assistance heard only 616 words an hour.  Contrast this with children in homes with professional parents.  They hear an average of 2,153 words an hour.  Those 2 thousand words add up!

Vocab graph  Not only was there a vast difference in the volume of words heard by children receiving public assistance and children in professional homes, but there was a difference in quality as well.  Children in professional households hear more descriptive words, an explanation to a “Why?” question, for example, than their lower-earning counterparts.   Parents in professional families affirm their children with positive statements 6 times more than they express negative statements.  In families receiving public assistance, many of the words spoken to children deal with behavior—usually stopping a behavior with demands like, “No!” and “Don’t!”  Children in these households hear twice as many prohibitions as they do affirmations.

Vocab graph2

Hart and Riley looked at the kids again at ages 9 and 10.  What they found was that children’s 3-year-old vocabulary levels were indicative of their literacy progress in 4th grade.  Instead of narrowing, the gap grew wider as children progressed through school.

We were awestruck at how well our measures of accomplishments at age 3 predicted measures of language skill at age 9…The rate of vocabulary growth at age 3 was strongly associated with scores at age 9.

–Betty Hart & Todd Risely (you can read more from their study here.)

Our job is to ensure success for children from all three of these homes (and some from homes much less loving than the ones measured in this study).  The teacher has quite a task ahead of her!

All three children show up for kindergarten on the same day, but one will have heard 32 million fewer words.  If No Child Left Behind expects the teacher to get this child caught up, she’ll have to speak 10 words a second for nine hundred hours to reach the 32-million mark by year’s end.

–Jim Trelease The Read Aloud Handbook, p. 15

It feels like the battle is lost before it’s begun.  As a teacher, I understand that weak lexicons limit students’ abilities to read, write, and comprehend.   Failure to progress in those areas will impact every facet of their future lives. In Appendix A of the CCSS, it says:

The importance of students acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary cannot be overstated.  Vocabulary has been empirically connected to reading comprehension since at least 1925 and had its importance to comprehension confirmed in recent years.  It is widely accepted among researchers that the difference in students’ vocabulary levels is a key factor in disparities in academic achievement.

So, how on earth do we begin to make a difference?

What vocabulary should I teach?

This vocabulary gap may sound overwhelming, but it’s not a new problem.  Lack of rich vocabulary instruction has been an issue for decades.  In 1979, Dolores Durkin observed 4,469 minutes of reading instruction, but found that only 19 of those minutes were devoted to vocabulary. From looking at current data, it seems that in regards to vocabulary, the classroom situation hasn’t changed much over the last 30 years.  Few teachers implement vocabulary instruction in any sort of intentional or frequent way.  Compounding the problem is the fact that the vocabulary teaching that is provided is often not what should be provided.

I am 100% guilty of this.

As a new teacher, if you’d asked me about how I taught vocabulary, I would have told you about the math terms and science vocabulary we’d been learning… when it was important to the unit.

So kids were coming to me with a deficit and I was doing very little to correct it.  I was missing the bigger picture of what type of vocabulary instruction is most useful for children.

The problem with limiting vocabulary instruction to the current social studies or science unit the way I did is that these words are not widely usable.  Really, how often does the word lithosphere crop up in conversation?   What we should be teaching are words like itemize.  Think about it.  This is a word that could be used in a fictional story or a math lesson or a science text book.  It has broad application.  These types of words are what Isabel Beck terms Tier 2 Words.

If you’re not familiar with Beck’s work, here’s a breakdown:

Tier 1:  Common Words

These are everyday words that most native English speakers already know.   Look, car, rain, jump are all Tier 1 words.  Children have learned these from the conversations around them daily.  Unless you’re teaching ELL students, Tier 1 words don’t require vocabulary instruction.

Tier 2: Useful and Rich Language

These are words that you’re likely to read, but won’t frequently use in conversation.  They are used often in a variety of contexts and it’s their generalizability that makes Tier 2 words so useful.  Predict, participate, fatigued are all Tier 2 words.   The CCSS refer to them as general academic words.  These words often provide a more precise or subtle means of expressing a simple idea. For example, devoured instead of ate or sweltering instead of hot.

In this category you’ll also find simple words with unfrequent usage.  For example, almost every child understands the verb draw as in “I draw a picture.”  But in this sentence, “I draw water from the well,” draw  has a very different meaning.  Common words often have multiple definitions some of which are rarely used.

Tier 3: Infrequent, domain-specific words

These are words that relate to a content area and are therefore termed domain-specific words in the CCSS.  Think entomologist, plate tectonics, embargo, etc.  These words are encountered far more frequently in informational text than they are in literature. Tier 3 words will be unfamiliar to readers new to the domain and authors will often take time to define these words in the text.

A word like pedagogue would also be considered Tier 3–not because it relates to a specific domain, but because it’s used so infrequently.

(You can read more from Isabel Beck about Tier 2 words in this excerpt from her book Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction)

Yes, kids need exposure to and practice with math, science, and social studies vocabulary, but it shouldn’t make up all—or even most—of your vocabulary instruction.  In order to be proficient readers, writers, and thinkers–in order to address any part of that early childhood vocabulary gap–children need a broad foundation of Tier 2 words.

How should I teach vocabulary?

Because each new word has to be studied and learned on its own, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning.

— Johnson O’Connor

The good news is that words learned link to new words learned.  The more words you understand the more you will be able to understand.  But it’s slow going.  When thinking about vocabulary instruction, it’s important to remember that:

1. It takes multiple (some research suggests as many as 40!) exposures to a word before its known.  Being able to recognize a word or even tell what it means isn’t the same as knowing that word.  Unless you can use it correctly in various contexts, you don’t really know a word.  Understanding a word at that level takes time and a lot of experiences.

2. Words are nuanced.  Some words can be a noun and a verb.  Hard is an adjective or an adverb depending on how it’s used.  Some words have widely varying meanings (think of all the definitions for the word seal).  That’s a lot of subtlety to master.

3. Learning words is cumulative.  That interrelated nature of words can be a huge boost in developing vocabularies.  Knowledge of one word (for example, fracture) can contribute to understanding other words (fraction, refract).

English is a vocabulary dense language.   In his book, The Story of English, Robert McCrum points out:

The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists some 500,000 words…According to traditional estimates, neighboring German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 words and French fewer than 100,000…

And this was in the 80s.  That was before woot and fanboy and selfie.  Technology is a game changer for language.  In fact, every few months new words are officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Thankfully no one needs to know all of English’s 500,000 words.  Most adults know 20,000 to 35,000 words and by age 8, native English speakers typically know 1,000 already.  So only 1,000 more to go, right?!  (If you’re curious about the size of your vocabulary, you can get an estimate here.)

Mastering the necessary volume of words can be laborious (<—look at that Tier 2 word!!).  Therefore, if we’re to have any hope at making headway in this task, we’ve got to get to work!

The biggest boost to vocabulary comes from reading.  When researchers looked at language they found that most conversations are made up of the same 5,000 words.  There are an additional 5,000 that are heard less often.  These 10,000 words make up the “common lexicon.”  It may be helpful to think of them as Tier 1 words.  They’re the 10,000 that the 8-year-olds in your school already know.  The words outside this common range are considered “rare” (think Tier 2 and Tier 3 words). You don’t learn these words through conversation and you don’t hear them on TV, so how do you learn them?  Through reading.  On average, children’s books have 30 rare words (per 1000) as compared to adult-child conversation.  Then there are only 10 or so rare words out of 1000.

So, we’ve got to get kids reading.  I don’t think that’s news to anyone!, but beyond that, teachers need a vocabulary program to make up some of the difference.  To be of any help to students, a vocabulary program must be systematic and frequent.  In Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary, (pp.19-21) Tim Rasinski (et al.) layout some guidelines to “select, evaluate, or create effective vocabulary instruction:”

  1. Instruction should include planned teaching of selected words with multiple kinds of information provided…Some direct instruction is useful.
  2. Vocabulary instruction should be integrative.  To learn new words–really learn them–requires students to connect new and existing knowledge.  Words are best learned when presented meaningfully with attention to definitions.  Students need to use new words in meaningful contexts and think about them in meaningful ways…
  3. Vocabulary instruction needs to include repetition.  Students should be immersed in words…In other words, looking up words in a dictionary and learning definitions are not enough to ensure word learning.  We need to do more.  Teacher read-alouds can help students develop vocabulary, especially if read-aloud books have wonderful words and powerful language.
  4. Word learning is a procedural activity–a matter of knowing how.  Therefore, students need strategies for determining word meaning.
  5. Vocabulary instruction must foster word consciousness, an awareness of and an interest in words.

If you have a program that meets these 5 requirements, you’re off to a good start. But If you’re still looking for something to help your students, check out our Jargon Journal program.  We’re so excited to share it with you!

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After a combined 14 years in 2nd grade, sisters Heidi & Emily are passionate about helping simplify life for other teachers!

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