Thursday, May 17, 2018

Follow the Child, Not the Program

I got into a bit of a twitter spat recently with a well-known literacy expert who reacted strongly to one of my posts. After a bit of back and forth, this person wanted to know about my credentials to discuss the topic asking, "Have you ever taught elementary school children to read?"

I responded that I had taught reading for many years as a reading specialist in grades K-4. Then came this question, "What program did you use?" A question I hear repeatedly and that I never know how to answer. I never used a program. To be sure, my work was influenced by a great many researchers and theorists: Marie Clay, Ken Goodman, P. David Pearson, S.J. Samuels, Patricia Cunningham, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Frank Smith, Lucy Calkins, Louise Rosenblatt. My work was also shaped by my professors: Susan Mandel Glazer, M. Jerry Weiss, Dorothy Strickland, John Clifford, Morton Botel, Susan Lytle, Brian Sutton-Smith, Marilyn Cochrane-Smith.

But I never followed a "program"; I followed the child. I worked primarily with vulnerable readers and writers. Kids for whom programs often had not worked very well. Applying a different program seemed futile. I got all the information I needed by talking with the child, observing the child in literacy and non-literacy situations, conducting interviews with the child, collecting samples of the child's writing, and listening to the child read aloud.

My knowledge of literacy research, theory, and instruction allowed me to make instructional decisions for children and then to try different approaches to help these vulnerable readers. Was the child able to use all the sources of information available to decode a word? Could the child track words on the page? Was the child gathering meaning while reading? Did the child carry a summary of the story forward when turning the page? This information allowed me to construct a picture of the reader and design an instructional approach.

School district administrators are often too quick to jump on (and off) the program bandwagon. If scores are low, it must be the program. Let's try another one. If an individual child is struggling, let's try a different program. Plenty of program publishers are out there ready to take school district money. All these programs have two things in common, 1) a slick presentation designed to convince you (and parents) this is the answer to all literacy learning problems, and 2) they don't work.*

Don't get me wrong, many programs have helped many children come to reading. Children are such skilled language learners, that almost any reasonably well-organized program that offers a balance between decoding instruction, comprehension instruction, actual time for reading of real texts, and teacher read aloud is successful for most.

In the 1950s, I, along with most of my classmates, learned to read using the "look-say" method found in the Our Friends and Neighbors Series (Oh! Look! See Spot run!). Later most students came to reading successfully through a more structured phonics (sound it out) approach such as that in the DISTAR program in the 1960s and 70s. The 1980s and 90s saw the growth of the constructivist approach, which emphasized making meaning and the reading of real literature with decoding instruction as needed. Again most kids learned to read. In the late 1990s and into the present, under the pressure of No Child Left Behind and Reading First, the emphasis returned to a focus on direct instruction focused on phonics. Again most children learned to read well enough.

Throughout all of these movements, however, one thing has persisted. Some children, about 15-20%, have struggled to learn to read well. No program has really been able to break through that number, despite the claims of Orton-Gillingham, Wilson Reading, Fundations, and other programs. Why? There are many reasons why children might struggle: learning disabilities, language differences, the impact of poverty, poor instruction, etc. Because the causes are complex, the answers to how to help these kids are also complex. Programs can't respond to this complexity (especially when they lack a balanced approach), but teachers can. If we want to bring a higher percentage of kids to literacy, we need to invest in our teachers, not in programs.

What would that investment look like? Most new teachers graduate from college with a limited understanding of literacy because they simply do not get enough instruction in how it works and how to teach it. This lack of knowledge leaves the novice vulnerable to every program that comes down the pike that promises results. So, one answer is more literacy instruction for prospective teachers.

Even more important, though, is more embedded professional development for teachers in their own school buildings and in the classroom as they are teaching. Recent moves toward having literacy coaches work with teachers in the classroom hold promise. Unfortunately, these coaching sessions have often focused on getting teachers to implement a program with fidelity, rather than with helping teachers meet student needs through better understanding of literacy instruction overall.

In the book, Research Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy, Hoffman and Pearson argue that to improve literacy instruction schools need to invest in their teachers and not in programs. They suggest the following strategies are associated with improving teacher ability to meet the needs of students.
  • Concrete, teacher specific, and extended training
  • Classroom assistance from local staff
  • Teacher observation of other teachers using similar instructional strategies
  • Regular meetings of teachers focused on literacy instructional practice
  • Teacher participation in decision making related to literacy instruction
  • Local development of instructional materials
  • Principals' participation in training
Programs don't teach children literacy; teachers do. Wise administrators invest in their teachers, not in programs. Wise teachers follow the child, because the informed observation of a child's reading behaviors will always tell knowledgeable teachers what instruction is needed.

*I know stating that these programs don't work will upset many, but don't take my word for it. The US Department of Education has been unable to identify any "remedial" program that successfully improves reading ability except for Reading Recovery, which is not a program, but an instructional approach that is the foundation of balanced literacy. The Orton-Gillingham approach has been around since the 1930s and yet we still have students who struggle and no independent research that shows that Orton-Gillingham and its related programs (Wilson, Stevenson) works to improve reading. It may help some improve decoding ability, which is not actual reading improvement. Some folks will say that if teachers would only apply their program with fidelity, it would work. This is just another way of saying the program doesn't work. If the program can't be applied successfully, in practice it doesn't work. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, But It Makes the Learner

Why, oh why, oh why, oh why?
Why, oh why, oh why?
Because, because, because, because
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
(from Why, Oh Why, by Woody Guthrie)

This Woody Guthrie children's classic satirizes the young child's endless curiosity and the adult's impatience with it. Turns out, though, that this curiosity in children may be their greatest ally in becoming a skilled life-long learner. A new study from the journal Pediatric Research demonstrates that curiosity may be the most important characteristic a learner brings to the table. More important than grit. More important than persistence. More important than self-control. The study itself is behind a very expensive paywall, but you can find a helpful summary in this article from Business Insider. 

Here are the three key takeaways from the article.
  1. A study of 6,200 kindergartners found that kids rated as most curious and willing to try new things by their parents performed better on math and reading assessments at school.
  2. The curious kids did well regardless of socioeconomic background, suggesting curiosity helps everyone learn.
  3. Even curious kids who weren't as persistent or attentive did well, suggesting curiosity may be a more important trait to foster in children than self-control.
Traditionally, schools, being institutions for mass learning, have not been very good incubators for curiosity. Curious kids can be impulsive. They ask lots of questions. They are not always good at raising their hand before blurting something out. Teachers, in the name of their own sanity, try to contain the impulsivity of these children with classroom norms like raising your hand, waiting your turn, sitting still, etc. "No excuses" charter schools have doubled down on the self-control aspects of schooling, with such strategies as SLANT (Sit-up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod your head, Track the teacher), enforced through a military style discipline based on shaming the rule breaker.

Efforts to standardize curriculum, require high stakes testing, install test-based accountability for teachers, and cut back on funding for the arts all also contribute to the devaluing of curiosity as a desirable trait for the learner. All these current trends lead to a narrowed curriculum, prescriptive learning targets, teachers who are afforded less opportunity to model their own curiosity, and a paucity of programs for creative and intellectually curious minds.

Knowing the importance of curiosity for learning, we need to ask what can schools do to foster curiosity. Knowing that curiosity is more important to the learner than even grit, how can we change what we are doing to make sure there is a culture in the school that is conducive to curiosity? Here are a few suggestions.
  1. Model curiosity - A curious teacher can foster curious students. Teachers need to model their own fascination with the world. Sharing an interesting discovery at the beginning of class, interrupting a lesson to explore a question raised by a student, conceiving of a new question while teaching and then taking the time to explore it with the students, are just a few of the ways teachers can model their own curiosity.
  2. Allow time - Curiosity demands time. Students need to be given time to reflect on ideas and to pursue information as new ideas and new questions arise.
  3. Hook them in - Great writers know that they can engage a reader in a story by leading with a provocative hook. The author Lois Duncan started her novel about students killing their English teacher called, Killing Mr. Griffin, with this sentence: "It was a wild, windy southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them." As teachers, we can use similarly provocative statements to kick start a lesson. "Many historians have speculated that FDR goaded the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor in order to marshal support for the US entering WWII." A recent example might come from Kanye West. "Kanye says that 400 years of slavery sounds like a choice. What could he mean? Could he be right? What events would prove him right or wrong?"
  4. Create conceptual conflict - Questions that startle student expectations by creating conceptual conflicts encourage curiosity. A teacher might ask "Did you know that the lightning flashes we see during a storm actually start from the ground and rise up into the clouds? How does that square with your experience?"
  5. Recognize that our goals may not be the student's goals - As a young teacher I read a book called, The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died, but Teacher You Just Went Right On, by Albert Cullum. As the title suggests, we teachers often get so tied up in our lesson plans that we forget to honor the things that are happening in the classroom around us that impact the learning. Curiosity is fostered when we take the time to inventory our classroom and our students and cultivate a culture where "going off task" might be just the right thing at any given moment.
  6. Choice - Give students choices of topics they wish to explore, things they want to write about, books they want to read. Choice builds engagement and encourages exploration driven by curiosity.
  7. Foster a classroom atmosphere open to questioning - A classroom where kids feel comfortable asking questions, have time to formulate questions, have those questions valued and have class time devoted to trying to find answers to those questions fosters curiosity.
  8. Add art to the mix - Adding music, theater, dance, drawing to any learning experience can foster both creativity and curiosity. Why was the 1920s called the jazz age? What are some visual ways to express the theme of the story? What kind of challenges does Shakespeare present for the actor? What would that descriptive paragraph look like in a painting?
It is clear from looking at this list that fostering curiosity in students demands time, openness to suggestion, and willingness to go off the plotted course for a while. Curiosity dies in the classroom focused on compliant acceptance of rules. Curiosity dies at the hands of a standard curriculum directed at achievement on standardized assessments. Curiosity dies when there is no time for reflection. Curiosity dies when there is no time for the arts in the school. 

If curiosity is the single most important tool available to the learner, and research would indicate it is, it would seem to be critical for schools to find a way to nurture its development. 



Sunday, May 6, 2018

Why Teachers Must Respect Non-Standard English

The single greatest ally young children bring to learning to read is their oral language. Oral language provides the foundation for learning to decode, comprehend, and create written language.  I have written about developing oral language in the classroom here.

But what if the oral language you bring to school is not valued and respected by the teacher in the classroom? What if your language, the language you grew up with, the language you learned at your mother's knee, is considered inferior and is constantly corrected? Robbed of your oral language in the classroom, you might well withdraw into yourself, refusing to take learning risks or ask a question or answer a question for fear of being corrected.

This is the issue addressed in an important article in the April issue of The Atlantic, Julie Washington's Quest to Get Schools to Respect African American English. Washington brings new attention to some things we have known for a long time. While I hope you will read the article, I will try to summarize the key points here.
  1. African American English (AAE) is a dialect of English, rich with its own rules of grammar and pronunciation. 
  2. Children who use AAE are at a disadvantage in literacy learning.
  3. This disadvantage is exacerbated by the lack of respect AAE receives from many classroom teachers.
  4. Children who use AAE when they enter school are similar to second language learners and benefit from similar instructional strategies used for second language learners.
  5. Children who use AAE need to learn to "code switch." That is they must learn an academic language for school based learning, while maintaining the ability to use AAE in appropriate (family, friends, neighborhood) environments. 
The article does not say, but I will add, that the only reason that Standard English is considered standard is because of money and power, not because it is inherently superior to other dialects. Those in power make the rules. This, I think, is important to understand if we are going to teach AAE speakers with the kind of respect their language deserves. That AAE is a dialect of English, with its own grammar, structure and rules has been well established since the work of the linguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania in his Language in the Inner City in 1972.

Of course, in order to move into the corridors of higher education, power, wealth, and influence AAE speakers must learn facility with Standard English, but this facility can be developed without destroying AAE. Indeed, we are more likely to be successful in helping all children achieve literacy, if we embrace the language they come to school with as the ally it is.

Right now, I am sure some of you are having flashbacks to the Ebonics era of the 1990's, when everything I have said above was recognized and some schools, particularly in Oakland, California, adopted programs that used AAE as a tool for instruction. Whatever you think of that movement, we now know that these folks were on to something. (In fact, we always knew it, but the implementation became the target of jokes on late night comedy shows, the sure death knell for any program.)

While we might want to stop short of Ebonics readers, there is nothing stopping us from treating AAE with respect in our classroom. What would that respect look like? First and foremost it would mean acceptance. Children do not need correction that shows a lack of respect for their oral language; they need to have their responses valued and standard structures modeled. 

The article tells the story of the author, Julie Washington, observing a retelling of P. D. Eastman's, Are You My Mother? by a 4-year-old in a pre-school class near Detroit. You will remember that the story has a structure like this.

                      "Are You My Mother?" asked the baby bird.
                      "How could I be your mother?" said the cow. "I am a cow."

The child recounted the story this way.  
  
                      Is you my mama?
                     I ain't none of your mama!

What is important here is not the non-standard dialect being used, but that the child clearly understood the story and was able to retell it. In fact, as Washington noted in the article, a close examination of the response shows that the child was able to understand a story read in standard dialect and then translate it into her own dialect and recreate the story orally in AAE. If anything this demands a higher level of linguistic functioning than a reader who already navigates the world in standard dialect. This is the cognitive load that all speakers of AAE carry in literacy learning, Washington suggests, and I would agree, this cognitive challenge is a contributing factor in the achievement gap. 

This story also demonstrates an important understanding for teachers. We do not need to speak in AAE to show respect for AAE; we just need to allow it and honor it as the child's language and help them negotiate the pitfalls that are sure to come. As an example, if a child who is an AAE speaker reads aloud the word "told" as "tol'", there is no need to correct the child, who has obviously both decoded and comprehended what word was needed. On the other hand, if "told" is a part of a spelling lesson, we can model the standard pronunciation, help the child sound out all the letters and see the "d" at the end as a way to help the child move toward standard usage. 

By the same token, if a child uses a construction like, "He be running in the hall.", we need to model the correct usage without pejorative judgment about correctness saying, "Oh, yes, he is always running in the hall." Note that the meaning of "He be running down the hall" as Labov has noted, is not a grammatically incorrect usage of the to be verb, but an entirely different grammatical construct meaning that "running in the hall" is something "he" always does.

Most children will learn to code switch, that is, toggle between AAE and Standard English naturally as a part of being in a classroom and hearing, reading, and writing in the standard dialect. Some will not. For those who do not, specific code switching instruction, along the lines of ESL instruction is necessary. These strategies include the introduction of new concepts and vocabulary by building on student background knowledge, guided oral interaction, explicit instruction in standard structures, contextualized instruction which takes something from students everyday lives and builds knowledge of standard dialect, and modeling that includes lots of use of visual aids, graphic organizers, and visuals.

We need to think of AAE as what it really is - an ally for us in bringing a child to literacy. Not something to be eradicated, but something of value to be used as a scaffold on which to build the ability to navigate Standard English. 


































Sunday, April 15, 2018

Expanding "No Excuses" Models is a Bad Idea

An organization called The Future of Children came out recently with a report titled Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap by Sarah Cohodes, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Future of Children is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Brookings Institution whose mission is "to translate the best social science research about children and youth into information that is useful to policymakers, practitioners, grant-makers, advocates, the media, and students of public policy."

Here is the key takeaway from the report: While charter schools as a whole have been shown to perform at about the same level as traditional public schools, some charter schools serving urban, low-income and minority students and employing a no excuses philosophy tend to produce the largest gains. We should, therefore, scale up the no excuses model into traditional public schools to narrow the achievement gap.

The National Education Policy Center has done a terrific analysis of this report and goes into detail into the report's failings. Chief among the weaknesses of the report is a failure to fully examine what "no excuses" schooling really means and just how advisable recommending a no excuses approach is.

I encourage all to read both reports, but in this post I want to address just how antithetical to a real education the no excuses approach is.

For the uninitiated, "no excuses" is a model employed by many charter schools, including those that get the most publicity like KIPP and Success Academy. It includes several facets including high expectations in academics and behavior, longer learning days and school years, extensive tutoring, frequent teacher observation and feedback and data-driven instruction using frequent assessments to inform teachers.

The no excuses approach is controversial primarily because of its harsh, military, style approach to discipline. I have experienced this personally in "no excuses" charter schools. Children are expected to sit up straight, maintain eye contact with the teacher, remain quiet in the hallways, walk to class and lunch single-file and comply unquestioningly to teacher directives. All this doesn't sound so bad, after all an orderly environment is necessary for learning to take place.

But when students do not comply with these rigidly enforced rules, discipline is harsh and focused on shaming. Students may be placed "on the bench", a designation that may require them to wear a garish colored shirt so that all know they have broken the rules, to be isolated from classmates in the classroom and at lunch and to write a letter of apology to the teacher and fellow students that must be read in front of the class.

The sight of privileged, mostly white, teachers and administrators meting out this punishment to mostly brown students is squirm inducing. And the shaming does not stop there. Data Walls in the hallways of many of these schools display student test scores for all to see. I have written about my observations of this discipline based on shame here and here.

I question whether a few points of improvement on a standardized test is worth this kind of treatment. Should we be attempting to narrow the achievement gap by widening the disciplinary gap? These harsh discipline policies often lead to high rates of suspension. Is this really the message we want to send to children and what impact does this kind of treatment have on the kinds of non-cognitive skills that are necessary for success, such things as self-efficacy, persistence, curiosity, assertion, cooperation, and empathy.

There may be some things we can all learn from the charter school innovations. Intensive tutoring, extended school days, effective use of data (actual actionable data, not standardized test scores) all seem to be good ideas for students at academic risk. But the harsh disciplinary practices should be unacceptable to teachers and parents alike. Indeed, the indications are that the "teachers" hired by these charters find these practices oppressive. Research indicates this is one impotant reason for high teacher turnover in these schools.

Slavery was an effective means for getting cotton harvested. That didn't make it right or desirable. Is raising a few kids test scores worth importing the plantation mentality to the classroom?





  proactive  skills  can  be  in  direct  tension  with  disci-
plinary methods found i no-excuses schools


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Building Vocabulary: Words in Context


When a mature reader encounters an unfamiliar word while reading, the first move is likely to be to try to determine the meaning of the word from the context. Because they are trying to communicate with the reader, author's typically leave clues to the meanings of the words they are using in the text (not intentionally, but as a natural part of the communication process). Perhaps because this strategy seems so natural to us as readers, we sometimes assume that students will use the strategy effectively, too. So when a child encounters a word she doesn't know in a text, our advice is often, "Skip it, read on, and see if you can figure it out from the context."

This is good advice, but not good instruction. As maturing, not yet mature readers, students need help in efficiently using the skip-and-read-on strategy. Authors leave clues in a variety of ways in texts. Knowledge about what kinds of clues authors leave and how to identify those clues can help students determine the meaning of unknown words in context. This is a critical skill, since it allows the reader to continue on in the reading without interruptions to look up words, so comprehension is enhanced. It is also critical because it means that readers are building their vocabulary through the act of reading.

The chart below shows six ways that authors leave clues in text. Readers need to be able to identify these clues in their reading. The chart is arranged from the most concrete (definition) to the most abstract (mood or tone) clues.



Instruction in the use of these strategies follows the same gradual release of responsibility model that I have discussed in previous posts. Here is how I would use this model for context clues. What the teacher might say to the students is in italics.
  • Introduce the strategy to the students and tell them why it is important and useful for them as readers. As we have discussed, good readers use the context of what they are reading to help them figure out the meaning of new words. This is important because it allows us to continue reading without interruption and because it helps us build our store of words while we are reading. Today we will continue our study of vocabulary in context, by looking at one type of clue that authors provide for us while reading: contrast
  • Model the strategy through a read aloud/think aloud demonstration. Let's say that we come across this sentence in our reading:  "Unlike her older brother Jerome, who stayed out all hours of the night, Kate obediently followed the curfew her parents set." In this sentence I am unsure of the meaning of the word obediently, to try and figure out the meaning I read the full sentence again including the words that come after the word I do not know. In this sentence, the context tells me that Kate is unlike her brother. I also know that Kate's brother stayed out all night and broke the curfew. So if Kate is not like her brother, is a contrast to her brother, she must be a person who follows the rules. So obediently must mean something like following the rules. Let me reread the sentence and see if that makes sense. If it does make sense I can read on. This modeling can take place over several examples.
  • Work collaboratively with students in using the strategy. Now that I have shown you several examples, let's look at this next sentence and see if we can work together to figure out its meaning using the contrast clue...
  • Give the students opportunities for guided practice of the strategy with partners or in small groups, while you monitor their use of the strategy. Let's now get into groups of three and I want you to work together on the next three sentences to use the contrast clues in these sentences to determine the meaning of the word...While the students work, the teacher moves around listening in, redirecting and coaching use of the strategy.
  • Give students the opportunity to practice the strategy independently. Now it is time  for independent reading. As you read today, see if you encounter any words that you do not know and see if the author has left a contrast clue to help you determine the meaning of the word. Checking in with students as they read, the teacher can monitor the use of context clue strategies.
This process can be used for each of the types of clues and eventually, the students can practice identifying the clues that they used and the meanings of the words they encounter in the text. Pearson and Gallagher, who developed the gradual release model, warn that teachers should not rush through the collaborative and guided stages of this lesson - this coaching art of the lesson has been shown to be critical for student success.

The use of context clues to determine word meaning is a critical skill in reading that not all students adopt automatically. The strategy can be taught, however, and arming students with the knowledge that clues to meaning are available and helping them identify what those clues are, not only aids reading comprehension, but also helps students build their vocabulary while they are reading independently.











 



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Building Vocabulary: The List-Group-Label-Add Strategy

This post is the third in a series on vocabulary instruction. You can find Part 1: An Overview here and Part 2: Teaching from a Conceptual Base here.

In the last post in this series, I discussed the importance of teaching vocabulary from a conceptual base. The idea is that children learn new words best by being able to place them in a conceptual framework, so that they can add new words to a concept they already possess and thus develop a broader, more sophisticated, more specific set of words built around a single concept. Thus a small child may have a rather simplistic notion of the concept pet that may include words like dog and cat, but over time will expand to include many other types of animals and other words from leash to litter box, from domesticated to veterinarian.  Vocabulary instruction from a conceptual frame becomes then a process not of learning individual words, but of connecting new terms to already existing knowledge.

One of the best strategies I have discovered over the years for teaching vocabulary from a conceptual framework is List-Group-Label, suggested by the great social studies teacher, author, and researcher, Hilda Taba, in 1967. While originally intended for use in social studies and science classes, the strategy can be used in any content area. In my own teaching, I have expanded the strategy to include an opportunity for students to add on words as they continue to read and learn about a concept, so I call this adaptation List-Group-Label-Add. Here is how it works.
  1. Choose a word that represents a fairly broad concept. Often these words will be the basis for a unit of study. Water evaporation makes a good concept for this activity, while dew is a word we will encounter in this study, but not broad enough as a concept for our purposes. In the example below, I will use the concept community.
  2. Write the target concept on the board: community. Point to the word, say the word, have the children say it with you and then tell the students the meaning of the word. By the way, we should follow this procedure with all new words we introduce to children. Research has shown that student memory for the meaning, pronunciation, and spelling of a word is enhanced if we follow the simple see it, hear it, say it, talk about it paradigm. For this exercise I defined community as "a particular area with all the places in that area and all the people who live there."
  3. Next I will tell the students, "Take a few minutes to jot down in your notebook any words or phrases that you connect to the idea of community. For example when we think of community we might think of the fire fighters who help us, but we might also think of the fire house that houses the fire engines. We might think of the public library and the librarians, we might think of houses and apartment buildings. "What do you think of that connects to this idea of community?"
  4. After the students have had a few minutes to make their lists, I ask them to share words that they have written. As a students share, I write the words on the board under the umbrella term community. I keep going until I have 25 -40 words on the board. Let's say that we gathered the words in Figure 1 below from the children.
  5. After gathering the words from the students, I put a numeral 1 next to one word, in this case police, and ask the children which words they would also put a 1 next to because they have a similar function in the community. After gathering a group of "1s", I move on to group 2 and 3 and so on as illustrated below. This is the grouping part of the activity. See Figure 2 below.
  6. Next for labeling, I point out all the words in Group 1(police, fire fighters, crossing guard, minister, teacher) and ask the students to give the group a name. Perhaps we come up with community helpers. The process is continued until all groups have a label (play areas, shopping, public buildings, etc.). The specific labels are not as important as the activity of grouping and looking for commonalities. 
  7. Once we have grouped the words and labeled the categories, I take the list and organize it into a concept web and display it in the room or on a Smart Board (See Figure 3).
  8. As we continue our study and reading about community, we then add any new words that we learn to the concept map, determining which category the new words belong to or adding new categories as needed, New words are written in a different color to show that these words are new knowledge acquired during the process of learning more about the concept of community.
After guiding the students through the process in this manner a few times, it is a good idea to turn the grouping and labeling parts of the process over to the students working in small groups to come up with logical groupings and labels for the generated words. As new words are learned, students may find they need new categories or that category names need to be changed to accommodate the new knowledge. 


Figure 1

Figure 2
Figure 3








Monday, March 5, 2018

Building Vocabulary: Teaching from a Conceptual Base

This is the second in a series on vocabulary instruction. You can find Part 1: An Overview here.


Dr. Seuss or Russ Walsh?
There are few things in education that we know with absolute certainty, but one of them is that teaching vocabulary from a conceptual base is far superior to the conventional look it up, define it, write it in a sentence, take a test approach. Despite our knowing this for more than fifty years, the conventional approach continues to be used in classrooms to this day, proving harder to kill than Dracula.

What constitutes a conceptual approach to vocabulary instruction? A concept may be defined as an idea of something that is formed by mentally combining all its characteristics and particulars. So the concept global warming includes such characteristics and particulars as pollution, climate, carbon dioxide, ozone layer, greenhouse gasses, carbon fuels, emissions, methane and on and on. Of course, each of these words is its own concept, so vocabulary growth is a continuing process of refining of the characteristics and particulars of an almost infinite number of concepts. The point is that children learn vocabulary best through the linkages that are provided by learning new words around a particular concept.

On March 2 of this year I was invited to participate in Read Across America Day in my old school district. In one pre-school class I entered I was immediately identified as the real Dr. Seuss. One clearly very exited child ran up to me and cried, "Dr. Seuss are you going to read to us today?" The teacher, Mrs. Clewall, had shown the children a picture of Dr. Seuss earlier in the week. As a result, the children had a concept of Dr. Seuss as an older, gray-haired, bearded man with glasses. I fit the bill. I began the class with a discussion of same and different and the children discovered that while I indeed was an older, gray-haired, bearded man with glasses, I was also different from Dr. Seuss in that I had much less hair, different glasses, and a rounder face. Hopefully, the children's concept of old guys who like to read and write books expanded a bit.

In the first grade class I visited I chose to read Zomo the Rabbit, by Gerald McDermott. This West African trickster tale is the story of a clever little rabbit who goes on a quest for wisdom. I decided that I would introduce the story by having the children explore their understanding of three words: smart, clever, wisdom. Clever and wisdom feature prominently in the story, but I began with smart because I thought it would give me the best chance to bring all the children (in a class I was meeting for the first time) into the conceptual area of focus: the pursuit of wisdom. Through a series of sit and thinks and turn and talks the children discussed the three words and came up with some tentative definitions. Most agreed that smart meant knowing a lot of stuff and clever meant knowing how to solve problems. Wisdom was more of a challenge for most kids, but one child volunteered that it had to do with spending a long time learning about important things.

With that I read the story to the children. In his pursuit of wisdom, Zomo has to do three impossible things, which he is able to do because of his cleverness, but along the way he also gets his jungle friends, Big Fish, Wild Cow, and Leopard, very angry. He learns that wisdom takes more than cleverness and more than courage, it also requires caution and good sense. After the reading we revisited our three words and the students demonstrated a growing understanding of what wisdom might entail. A little cleverness, a lot of knowledge, some caution, and lots of good sense.

This is a sample of what approaching vocabulary from a conceptual base looks like. If we wanted to structure the lesson more formally we might want to employ concept circles to make the connections clear for the students. There are three types of concept circles.

The first asks the student to name the concept given the words within the circle.


 The second asks the student to supply another word that would fit in the circle and help define the concept wisdom.


 The third asks the students to identify the word that does not fit with the others in defining the concept wisdom. Which one of these is not like the others?


Concept circles, and a conceptual approach to learning vocabulary helps kids assimilate new words into already existing concepts, making their concepts more sophisticated and arming them for more and more sophisticated and nuanced understanding and uses of the language.

In part 3 in this series, I will continue our exploration of vocabulary instruction from a conceptual base.











Thursday, March 1, 2018

Buiding Vocabulary: An Overview

The first in a series on teaching and learning new words.

The importance of a strong vocabulary to successful reading is well-documented. Because of its importance vocabulary development is considered one key to a rich language arts curriculum. But while there are many paths to an increased vocabulary, there is no silver bullet, no magic formula, no quick fix for vocabulary. Vocabulary development is the work of a lifetime, a literal cradle to grave activity, a quest that has no end. As teachers our job is, in part, to teach vocabulary, but more importantly it is to set students up to be in the vocabulary acquisition business for the rest of their lives.

First, let's take a look at the many paths that lead students to a rich vocabulary.
  1. Conversation - Children, from the earliest of ages, learn words through conversation with adults and other children. Children who are talked with, rather than talked at, tend to build larger vocabularies. In the classroom it is critical that teachers have real conversations with children and structure the classroom so that children can have real conversations with each other. Conversations are two way streets where participants are expected to listen and also speak. 
  2. Reading - Before children learn to read independently, they learn new vocabulary through read alouds. Once children learn to read independently, wide reading in a variety of genres and on a variety of topics is the single best way to continue developing word knowledge. Read alouds, with teacher explanation of words, should, of course, continue well after children have begun to read independently. In order for reading to lead to improved vocabulary, that reading must be wide awake to the new words the reader encounters. In other words the reader must have a well-developed word consciousness (see below).
  3. Writing - Truly knowing a new word requires many encounters with a word. One good way to reinforce vocabulary learning that comes from reading or direct instruction is through writing. Please note, I am not talking here about writing sentences for words that have been assigned arbitrarily, or the kind of artificial writing created when students are asked to use a set of vocabulary terms in a paragraph. I am talking here of a much more organic approach, where children reinforce new vocabulary by responding to or summarizing what they have read or what new information they have learned. The point of learning new vocabulary is not the words themselves, but the ideas these words convey.
  4. Direct Instruction - Research has shown that students can also learn words through direct instruction. Again, direct instruction does not mean being assigned a list of words to look up, writing the definition, and then writing the word in a sentence. This is not instruction at all, but busy work. Direct instruction means the teacher deliberately discussing a targeted word, talking about its meaning, showing how it is used in context and engaging the children with the word by showing how it connects to their own experience.
  5. Morphemic Analysis - Knowledge of root words, prefixes, and suffixes can also assist students in determining the meaning of a word and in building vocabulary based on common elements. It is helpful when you run across the word "pseudonym" in your reading, if you know that the prefix "pseudo-" means "fake" , and that the root "nym" means name. This knowledge can then help you extend to other words like homonym, synonym, and antonym.
  6. Context Clues - Knowing that authors often leave clues in their writing to help readers determine the meaning of an unknown word is also useful in developing vocabulary. Research has indicated that the use of context clues is most effective when students are directly taught the strategy and the various ways that authors signal the meaning of words. 
  7. Word Histories - The history of words can also be helpful when trying to determine the meaning of a word. Telling word stories can help students develop an interest and curiosity in words. One such story I tell is about the word "sign." It seems that the word sign was once pronounced with the "g" being sounded, but over the years the "g" was dropped and the "i" made long. But the "g" has been retained in spelling to help us with the meaning of such words as signal, signature, signatory, significant, etc.
  8. Consulting an Expert - Sometimes no particular strategy can help and outside help is required. Students need to learn to use resources like a dictionary quickly and efficiently, but I also like to suggest that students should consider other resources that might be available as well. It might be more efficient for the reader to simply ask a classmate (perhaps one with particular knowledge of a particular topic), or the teacher, or another adult.
Just as readers need a repertoire of strategies to decode an unknown word (phonics, word families, chunking, what makes sense?), they also need a repertoire of strategies to determine word meaning. Indeed, any encounter with a new word might involve a bit of recall of instruction, a bit of morphemic analysis, a bit of context, and a bit of consulting an expert. Teaching students these strategies is helpful, but we also need to make sure we teach them to use the strategies flexibly.

Word Consciousness

None of the good vocabulary instruction we do will matter much unless we simultaneously help students develop word consciousness. Word consciousness means an awareness of and a curiosity about new words that will motivate the learning of new words. I have written about word consciousness extensively in this post. Teachers have a critical role to play in developing student word consciousness. First, and most critically that role includes being a model of word curiosity. During read alouds and any other activity, the teacher must communicate her fascination with, enthusiasm for, and love of words, at the ingenious ways that words work, at how the same word can have so many different meanings, at how authors choose to use certain words to communicate certain ideas. 

By skillfully and regularly using think alouds teachers can help students develop their own fascination and enthusiasm for words. Here is an example of a think aloud from a fourth grade read aloud. 

From the reading: The truck farm is located on a beautiful stream in a pastoral setting. 

Boys and girls, I am not sure I know the meaning of "pastoral" in this sentence, so let me see what I can use to help me figure it out. I know that the suffix -al is used on adjectives, so the word is a describing word for the noun "setting." If I take the -al off I am left with the root word "pastor." I know a pastor is kind of like a minister or a priest, but that meaning of the word doesn't seem to make sense here. "Pastor" also looks a bit like "pasture", and this sentence is talking about a farm, so I wonder if the word could mean something along the lines of "like a pasture." That seems to make sense. Let's look the word up and see what the dictionary has to say. So the dictionary says "associated with the country life." So that seems close to what we guessed. The dictionary also says that this is the type of farm is usually associated with sheep or cattle. The word comes from the Latin word pastor meaning shepherd. That also seems to be where the word "pastor" meaning minister comes from, because religious pastors are often referred to as tending to their flock, in this case, not sheep, but the people who attend their church.

In this think aloud I have tried to demonstrate for the children that they can use context clues, morphemic analysis, word histories, and outside experts in combination to discover the meaning of a word and to get the bonus of discovering some interesting ways that words are intertwined in meaning. 

Armed with word consciousness and some word solving skills, students are positioned to grow their vocabulary with each encounter with text.

In future posts in this series, I will look in more detail at other instructional strategies we can use to build vocabulary.