The Power of Vocabulary

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The first time I learned about The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3, I was horrified. To confirm that the achievement gap starts well before a child can even make it to kindergarten is heartbreaking. What’s more, teachers receive much of the blame for under-performing children, and not nearly enough resources to combat the problem. Instead, best practices drop from the sky like candy from a pinata, and districts catch what they can in the process. Teachers sit through professional developments that produce book studies and additional responsibilities, but still not necessarily the solutions needed. This process holds true for vocabulary as well.

It is widely known and accepted that it is best practice to teach students vocabulary through direct instruction, and it is clear that students should be receiving tier 2 words 20170724_095740(words students see in print) on a regular basis. However, the process itself – the actual way that students are taught vocabulary words – is quite murky. Marzano gives us 6-steps, and I often hear all the rave about the Frayer Model, which is a great tool, but many students are still not acquiring words in a meaningful way that allows them to expand their vocabulary. What’s more, I was shocked to learn that of the two different districts where I’ve worked that no one deemed it necessary to require vocabulary instruction. That said, I took matters into my own hands. I worked relentlessly to build my students’ vocabulary through a system that proved to be beneficial to not only their reading comprehension, but also to their verbal and written communication. But before I started randomly throwing word lists together, I considered a few things:

  1. Word Choice: What words should my students know? This is a loaded question. When you consider grade-level, there are words that frequent the grade-level text, and students need to know these words for comprehension purposes, but what about demographic?
  2. Demographic: What we learn from the 30 Million Word Gap is that every child does not receive the same exposure. Consequently, some students need more exposure than others. A vocabulary list in an affluent district may look very different than one in a struggling district. However, I strongly believe some of those words should overlap.
  3. Application: How hard is it for students to apply the words they are given? Where will they hear the words? My word lists came from SAT word lists and class reading assignments, but that left much to choose from. So, to help narrow it down, I also thought about the music they listened to and where they could find relevance in the words given.
  4. Exposure: What role did I play in using those words in the classroom? If I could not use them in everyday conversation with my students, were they actually good words, and how could I expect my students to use them if I could not?
  5. Expectation: How would I require and encourage students to use their vocabulary words? If I was just handing out lists without any follow-up or expectation for continued use, I was wasting my time and theirs.

After considering all of these things, and constantly requiring students to look up words I used, but they did not know, I knew there was an opportunity to make a real difference in their vocabulary and reading comprehension. I began to develop vocabulary lists until I had enough of them for an entire school year. Each set provided 3 days of practice with 5-6 different opportunities for students to use their new words. I quizzed students over the words and gave a summative assessment at the end of each set of 3. The outcome was nothing short of a miracle. Even my complainers used their vocabulary words. In turn, reading comprehension increased and their writing skills were better. The proof was not only in my grade book, but also in my students’ standardized testing scores.

Ultimately, vocabulary is an integral part of all learning, no matter the subject. Every teacher should use direct instruction to teach vocabulary to not only increase student achievement, but to also close the gap.

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