November 26, 2014

Academic Vocabulary 101 (and 102 and 103)

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Recently, Kim has been able to boast that her sons, ages 10 and 12, can use the words erudite, amity, dauntless, candor and abnegation in conversation with relative ease. To most, this seems particularly impressive because many adults don’t even know what all of these words mean. Most people who notice her boys’ vocabulary attribute it to Kim’s expertise in literacy. It is not surprising that Kim has sons with large vocabularies.

While there is truth to the notion that children who grow up in literate environments–homes where they are spoken to and read to, encouraged to read, and have easy access to books–will know and understand more words in spoken and written language, that Kim’s children know these words is not only a byproduct of living in a literacy-rich home.  It is also the result of 1) multiple exposures to 2) rich texts.

Those of you familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent will easily recognize that the five words in italics in the first paragraph represent the five factions in Roth’s novel about Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world. Understanding the plot and characters of this book depends on the reader’s understanding of what it means to be erudite or dauntless or possess qualities like amity, abnegation, or candor. These words appear repeatedly throughout this book and, because Kim’s family recently read Divergent aloud together, Kim’s boys learned them. As Kim and her children (and her husband!) read it, they stopped on many occasions to check in with their understanding of these words, making sure they were keeping up with who was who, what was happening, and why.

Building academic vocabulary is an important tenet of the Common Core. If we are going to expect children to access increasingly complex text, then they must know words … lots of words. Perhaps, you are wringing your hands wondering how you are going to teach the word suspicious to first graders in the first week of school. Educational publishers are heeding the call for vocabulary rigor with new series of vocabulary workbooks, but the bottom line is this: Workbooks don’t work. Why? Because in order to add new words to a child’s vocabulary, they need to experience language in a multitude of ways and encounter words on multiple occasions. The best way to do this is to immerse children in classrooms where language is celebrated through read aloud, independent reading, writing, and conversation. So if you are looking to improve students’ academic vocabularies, repeat after us: Read. Read. Read. Talk. Talk. Talk. Write. Write. Write.

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