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Friday, October 31, 2014

Words, Words, Words: Narrowing the Vocabulary Gap through Read-Alouds

In many ways what we routinely call the achievement gap can be understood as a vocabulary gap. It has been almost 20 years since the famous Hart and Risley study pronounced the thirty million word gap. As the graph to the right shows, they found that by age 3 children from affluent families heard 30 million more words than children from the lowest socio-economic group. Additionally, children in higher socio-economic groups heard more statements of encouragement, while children from low socio-economic groups heard more words of discouragement.

The child’s greatest asset in coming to be literate is, of course, the oral language each child brings to the school door. It is obvious that some children arrive with the major advantage of a much larger vocabulary;  a vocabulary learned not through dedicated study, but through lots and lots of contextualized and supportive talk. And this advantage only grows with time. While all children learn many new words in school, children who start with a larger receptive vocabulary add more words more quickly because they have more word structures in the brain (schema) to receive these new words. It is an example of what has been called “The Matthew Effect”, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Recognizing the critical nature of the first three years in a child’s life and of the huge impact on language development that comes from the primary caregiver of that young child, organizations like Too Small to Fail and the Thirty Million Words Initiative are going into homes and helping care givers learn how to nurture the child’s early language development.

Such programs are hopeful, but once the child arrives at school what can a teacher do to narrow the word gap? It seems obvious that if we could narrow the vocabulary gap we would be making inroads in the achievement gap.

One school-based answer would be to provide children with a language rich learning environment. An environment where the teacher engages the children in lots and lots of contextualized talk about a broad range of subjects, but also an environment where children are talking to each other in structured play situations.  I addressed this issue of talk in the early years of schooling here. I worry that a movement toward a more academic orientation of pre-school and kindergarten could move teachers away from providing the time for the kind of structured play that encourages children to interact with each other around contextualized play. As Fiano (2013) has said,

            Teachers need to be more tolerant of student talk in the classroom. 
            Consistent modeling and multiple opportunities for practicing oral
            discourse in student-led workstations will alleviate off-task 
            behavior by students. Additionally, there needs to be time built in for
            teachers to observe the language that students are using during
            independent workstation use (p. 77).

Another, equally important, answer is the interactive read-aloud. I have addressed the importance of read-alouds in other posts here and here. In this post I would like to make a plea for the interactive read-aloud as a way to build all children’s vocabularies. As I worry that the push for higher standards and test driven accountability might drive out play in the kindergarten, I also worry that these forces might drive out read-alouds from the daily diet of the student. This would be a tragedy on many levels, not the least of which is that the read-aloud offers a great opportunity for narrowing the vocabulary gap.

To learn new words children need to hear the rich language of the best children’s literature as often as possible. Immersion in this language through read-aloud is a good beginning, but children also need to have their word acquisition mediated by the teacher who can contextualize and clarify new words and model for students how the meanings of new words can be determined through the context of the passage.

Enter the interactive read-aloud.

An interactive read-aloud is a systematic approach that includes the teacher doing the following:

·         Modeling higher-level thinking
·         Gathering, confirming and revising student predictions
·         Asking thoughtful questions focused on analyzing the text
·         Prompting student recall
·         Reading one book repeatedly
·         Reading books on a related topic
·         Systematically discussing words through providing short definitions and/or modeling identifying a word in context

Research has shown that it takes many encounters with a word to “own” it. Reading one book repeatedly provides an environment to encounter words over and over again. Reading books on a related topic helps students build a vocabulary around a particular theme or content. For example, reading aloud many books on insects over of the period of a week will expose students to insect related words in a context that allows them to make connections and again encounter these words multiple times. Reading books organized around related topics builds the content vocabulary for future study of these topics.

Simply hearing words in a rich context is not always enough, so it is also important that the teacher stop during the read-aloud to provide short definitions or longer explanations of words when necessary. Taking breaks during the read-aloud to have children turn and talk to each other about words they hear will get the students using the words and reflecting on the meanings.

So much for the how of a read-aloud focused on vocabulary development, what books should we read aloud? The answer is any book of high quality that uses words in a rich and meaningful context. Research has shown that children’s listening comprehension is about two grade levels ahead of their reading comprehension, so interactive read-aloud provides the opportunity for reading highly literate texts that we might not use in regular reading instruction. Aim high with your read-alouds and scaffold the children’s comprehension and vocabulary acquisition.

We should also be reading a good mix of fiction and non-fiction in our read-alouds. Vocabulary development is largely a matter of building more and more sophisticated conceptual knowledge. Reading non-fiction, as well as fiction, helps build this conceptual knowledge.

Read-aloud is a critical part of the instructional day. We must not let it be crowded out by someone’s idea of what 21st century instruction looks like. If we need to justify our read-aloud time in the plan book, we should write that we are narrowing the vocabulary gap by exposing the children to the rich vocabulary they need for continued learning.

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