The beginning of the Common Core’s discussion about Academic Vocabulary opens with a quote by Marilyn Jager Adams (2009) that reads,
Words are not just words. They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought. When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge. What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford. (Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix A, p. 32)
On a first read of this quote, most of us will nod our heads in agreement. As you listen closely to student conversations as well, you are likely to feel the full significance of these ideas and the shift toward “acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary.”
On a recent visit to a fourth-grade classroom, Kim saw students engaged in a lively discussion about the chapter in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2011) where Violet turns into an oversized blueberry. They were looking closely at the opening paragraphs of text that read,
“This gum,” Mr. Wonka went on, is my latest, my greatest, my most fascinating invention! It’s a chewing-gum meal! It’s….it’s…it’s…that tiny little strip of gum lying there is a whole three-course dinner all by itself!” “What sort of nonsense is this? said one of the fathers. “My dear sir!” cried Mr. Wonka, “ when I start selling this gum in the shops it will change everything! It will be the end of all kitchens and cooking! There will be no more marketing to do! No more buying of meat and groceries … .” (p. 90)
And as they considered this passage, their teacher told them to think about words that describe how Willy Wonka was feeling. The students talked with one another and the teacher recorded their ideas on the board as they brainstormed aloud. Their list included excited, happy, satisfied and confident.
In considering these words and how they reflect what Willy Wonka is feeling, Kim thought about the child whose word choice for describing Wonka was happy. How does her understanding differ from the student who explained, “Yes, Wonka is happy, but more in an excited sort of a way. I think that is a better choice.” And how might that be compared to the child who said, “Satisfied feels too final. He’s still making his gum. I think the best word up there to describe how Willy Wonka is feeling is confident.”
While this list of words has some level of interconnectedness, it is the subtlety of the difference in word meanings that helps students “build, refine, and modify” their understanding, making a strong case for the Common Core’s emphasis on vocabulary. This example illustrates why most of us nod our heads in agreement when we read Adams’s words but it does not tell us how—how will we help students learn “a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level?” (Anchor Standard 6 for Language, p.25) And how do we get children to see the relationships between words and “nuances in word meanings?”(Anchor Standard 5 for Language, p. 25)
Though the standards are straightforward, the path to arriving there is still muddled by the reality that instructional time for reading, writing, listening, and speaking must address an array of skills, processes and content that are in fierce competition with each other. Acknowledging the merit of the destination is just the beginning; we must now figure out how to get there.
Adams, M. J. (2009). The challenge of advanced texts: The interdependence of reading and learning. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Reading more, reading better: Are American students reading enough of the right stuff? (pp. 163–189). New York, NY: Guilford.
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards; Glossary of terms. Retrieved from: http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf
Dahl, R., & Blake, Q. (2011). Charlie and the chocolate factory (Reprint Edition). London: Puffin Books.