Tuesday, March 3, 2009

K-12 Topic: Vocabulary

10-second review: Teachers’ uncertainty about how to teach vocabulary consistently, especially across disciplines.

Title: “What Reading Teachers Say About Vocabulary Instruction: Voices from the Classroom.” JL Berne and CLZ Blachowicz. Reading Teacher (December 2008/January 2009), 314-322. A publication of the International Reading Association (IRA).

Summary of a survey of 72 educators, K-12 to college, with 56% from elementary schools. In last place in the category of “Most Successful Instructional Strategies,” were “Using Context” and “Pre-teaching Vocabulary Prior to Reading” with 3 people out of 72 listing them. The most successful practice with 13 people was focusing on word parts.

Comment: 72 people is not a very large sample, but if that sample represents a great number of educators, I am completely stunned by the scarce attention given to context and pre-teaching unfamiliar vocabulary before reading.

One of the major questions from the respondents was consistency in vocabulary development across the disciplines. Piecemeal examples of successful practices can’t do it. Pre-teaching unfamiliar vocabulary before reading does provide consistency in every discipline as part of the Directed Reading Assignment (DRA)—1. building background information on the topic; 2. pre-teaching unfamiliar words; 3. setting purpose and 4. applying or extending what has been learned from reading.

Among other reasons for pre-teaching unfamiliar vocabulary before reading, is that students will not see words that they do not know. Try this experiment. After students have read the chapter or article, ask students for the meaning of words you are pretty sure they will not know. They will not have any answer, mainly because they avoided words they did not recognize. Call their attention to the words before they read and they will at least see them and, depending on your work with the words, will understand their meaning.

I repeat again Olive Niles’s challenge to American educators: If every teacher in every discipline used the directed reading assignment, there would be no reading problems in the United States.

And not using context? That’s the second approach to consistency in developing vocabulary across the disciplines. How else do students comprehend on their own unless they learn to use context to guess at the meanings of unfamiliar words?

Migosh! Did the directed reading assignment and learning words from context go away with whole language, like every other consistent approach to helping kids learn to read systematically? How on earth did the whole- language people teach students to read? I’m beginning to think that they used the “think system” borrowed from Professor Harold Hill’s The Music Man. RayS.

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