I have often told the story about myself as a second grade teacher. As awesome as I thought I was as an educator, data speaks when gauging and understanding student academic achievement. Even if you dispute this thought, the fact that numbers don't lie still proves that data is important to understand and consider. My data was showing that the students I taught, both low achieving and normally achieving where not scoring well when it came to vocabulary. One of my core values both professional and personal is to make a difference so, to see that my students were not doing well did not leave me feeling effective. That thought is a seed that was planted and has grown into my research focus today. By the way, that research topic is still ever-evolving and growing as I both learn new ideas and experience new issues to explore. It became my mission to understand what I could do to change what the numbers revealed. I first needed to understand what it really meant to change those numbers.
My first thoughts were; "How do you even test for knowledge of words?" Vocabulary knowledge is an unconstrained skill (a skill that is learned gradually over time as your are exposed to "increasingly challenge words.). It is not like learning the letters of the alphabet and the sounds that go with them (even though English is a complex language, we can still learn all about them in a fixed amount of time). I will admit, my first thoughts were to find the words that were being tested and just teach those, but would that really "teach" children all the words they would need to be able to comprehend the text they word be exposed to when they left me and went to those tested grades later in their school careers? No it would not! I needed to teach them some words and also teach them how to figure out the meaning of other words. So, yes I started by teaching my students specific words (like the ones they would see on a standardized test, but I also began paying attention to what students were supposed to know about vocabulary before they got to me (second grade) and what they needed to learn while they were with me, but I am rambling on and getting off track. Here is why I feel teaching vocabulary in the early grades is important.
Vocabulary, whether you consider it the knowledge of words or the knowledge of word meanings is important to comprehending the text we read and hear. If we don't know the words we are reading or hearing, the text being read or heard may as well be a foreign language. The extent of knowledge I have about a topic depends on the vocabulary I use and understand about it. A researcher said; we think in words, so to change our thinking we learn more words. It is very true that students who know words, (and by know words I mean understand and use) learn more words and a greater rate than students who don't know many words. It is also very true that students who don't know many words when they begin school, will struggle to understand the text they hear or read. We cannot really control the amount of words (word meanings) children know when they get to us, but we can control their exposure to words while they are with us. The Matthew effect says "the rich get richer" this is one of the reasons that teaching vocabulary in the early grades is important.
We can begin to level the playing field for our students by teaching them more words, both intentionally by explicitly teaching words, word meanings, parts of speech, synonyms and antonyms, and morphology and by exposing them to more words through reading aloud to them and exposing them to classroom discussions and talk. It is important to do this while students are also learning the alphabetic principle and using that knowledge to learn to read words. When students begin to encounter those "increasingly challenging"(language from the TEKS) text we spoke about earlier, students are learning to use the skills they learned in the early grades both more strategically and with more automatically. Students learn about using context clues, using dictionaries, understanding the word parts carry meaning, and that words can relate to other words in the early grades through teachers reading aloud texts and modeling the skills they need to understand text and share learning experiences with other texts, but as children matriculate through each grade level, the amount of shared responsibility and understanding shifts to them as students carrying more of the load. It is at this point where we begin to see more of an issue if students don't have a strong foundation from the earlier grades. Those teachers who teach third, fourth, and fifth grade begin to see evidence of what is called the fourth grade slump. Students tend to struggle to comprehend text at the fourth grade level because of the increasingly challenging nature of text at that level and because of the student not being prepared well enough to tackle challenge of that text independently.
It is our responsibility as early grade educators to prepare our students to be able to handle the task of reading and comprehending text as it becomes increasingly challenging when they move from one grade to the next. We are teaching students to read and comprehend text so that when they get to the upper elementary grades they can use those skills to comprehend and gain knowledge from text independently at their current grade level or above.
Thank you for reading...
Pearl Garden, Ed.D has completed her dissertation research involving understanding the vocabulary instruction practices of early grade teachers. She has a passion for the new and novice educator, and it is her goal to help educators tackle the achievement gap with her research findings. She will use this blog to share what she has learned in “pearls of literacy”. The ideas come from her dissertation titled “A Content Analysis of the Vocabulary Instruction Habits by Early Grade Teachers”.