Monday, September 21, 2009

Vocabulary: The Question is Not Whether but How

- Douglas Grudzina

Polonius, the fool, asks Hamlet, “What are you reading?” And Hamlet answers, “Words, words, words.”

True enough—we read words, hear words, speak words, write words, and—but for a few specific exceptions—we think words. Our students do too. Therefore, it behooves us (and them) to know as many words as possible so that we are better prepared to understand what others are communicating to us and better able to communicate with others.

Study after study (we’ve all read them) compares advantaged students (i.e., kids who grew up in homes with reading materials readily available and whose parents read to them when they were little) to disadvantaged students (i.e., the kids who were not read to and did not grow up in homes filled with books, magazines, and newspapers). Advantaged kids from “literacy-rich” homes start school with vocabularies that are nearly twice as large as the disadvantaged kids.

While this statistic might be distressing, it’s not surprising, and it’s not hard to understand why such a disparity exists.

What is surprising and difficult to understand is the well-documented conclusion that, once both sets of kids enter school, the gap does not narrow; it widens!

How could this be? Starting in…what?...first grade?…second?...both sets of students are handed their vocabulary books, assigned the same ten words a week, given the same weekly crossword puzzle, seek-and-find, and vocabulary test. Why, then, does one group’s vocabulary grow by as many as 3,000 words per year (an average of eight words a day), while the others’ doesn’t?

The answer—and it’s really no mystery at all—lies in how the disparity began in the first place. The parents (and other adults) of the literate students did not give their babies vocabulary books. They did not hand their toddlers weekly vocab sheets with ten words to define, name the part of speech, and list three synonyms and three antonyms. If their kids started school knowing twice as many words as their less fortunate counterparts, it was because their parents read to them.

Anecdotally, it is also surmised that these same parents paid attention to their kids when they talked and offered positive reinforcement when their kids used new and different words.

Exposing young children to words in context and words in use, then, is what explains why some kids start school knowing twice as many words as others. Might it also explain why years and years of ten-word-a-week vocabulary study serves only to widen the gap between students who are probably still being read to and talked to and those who aren’t?

Now, let’s face it, we’re not going to eliminate direct vocabulary instruction any time soon—and perhaps we shouldn’t. After all, we all know how effective simply modeling appropriate academic behavior is for the majority of our students. So, it probably is a good idea to have a systematic means of introducing our students to new words they will need to recognize, understand, and use. After all, they’re going to be learning new and increasingly difficult concepts, so they will need the language to communicate their understanding.

But, clearly, simply introducing them to the words is not sufficient. There are so many studies that show it’s not. There are no studies that indicate that vocabulary study alone is an effective way to increase kids’ working vocabularies. Just as it’s the kids whose parents read to them and spoke to them who come to school with larger vocabularies, so, too, it will be the students who actually use their new words—hear them spoken by the teacher and others, are required to speak them and write them—who will learn them.

They key is use.
Whatever vocabulary series you use, if your kids are not actually using the words they’re studying, why bother? None of us enjoys futility.

So…we’re certainly not advocating that you toss out your vocabulary program (quite the opposite since we have great faith in our programs including Vocabulary Power Plus, Vocabulary from Latin and Greek Roots, and the new Standards-Based Vocabulary Study for struggling students). But we are suggesting that you and your colleagues really examine the atmosphere—the context—in which those weekly words are defined, labeled, and played with. And make a conscious effort—make it a top priority—to get your students using the words you say you want them to learn.

After all, that’s how they learned their first 5,000 words.

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