Showing posts with label Vocabulary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vocabulary. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What Reading French Taught Me about Vocabulary

            Bonjour, cher lecteurs.

            Oops…. Hello, dear readers.

            Awhile back I set out to teach myself to read French, with neither teacher nor class. My goal was to be able to read the news from a different culture (or maybe I was trying to make up for being Mrs. Benstein’s worst French I student in high school).

            I started with old textbooks from a programmed reader series, and then with the help of dictionary and Google Translate, I set out on a journey through flash cards, children’s books, grown up magazines, and heavily abridged French books.   

            I managed to learn French well enough that I’m about to finish my first real book reading (an ambitious 600+ page Goncourt Prize winner—L’Art Francais de la Guerre—that I would highly recommend if it were in English).

            Yes, I learned French (oui, oui), but just as important I think learned a lot about learning (and teaching) to read. Occasionally, I want to share some of those insights with you. In this entry, I’ll focus on some of what I have learned about vocabulary and reading.

            For example, while reading French, I found myself thinking a lot about the best time to deal with unknown vocabulary. Although some texts that I read provided vocabulary previews –like the ones common in our instructional materials—I must admit that I rarely found such support to be particularly useful—either in supporting my immediate comprehension or in building my word knowledge. Studies show that preteaching vocabulary can have a significant impact on comprehension (National Reading Panel 2000), but those studies compared preteaching with doing nothing. That isn’t the pedagogical choice, however.

            Rather than previewing vocabulary, my French reading routines included either immediate word post-reading look-ups. Remember, I had no teacher, so the dictionary itself served as my tutor. When texts were especially challenging (meaning in part, that there were lots of unknown words), it really helped to be able to look up the words right away as I needed their meanings. That might seem cumbersome (but with computerized tools, it isn’t that bad), but it made a big difference in making sense of a text.

            I would love it if all school books had a dictionary feature (like Kindles and IPads), where kids could just touch an unknown word to arrive at a word meaning. However, that seems far away. Until then, I suggest that teachers or publishers make available to kids glossaries; a page of kid friendly definitions in alphabetical order that kids could use for immediate look-ups during reading.

            With easier texts, I’ve been finding it better to do my dictionary work after I’ve done my best to read the text. I underline the unknown words as I read, doing my best to interpret the author’s message… then, at some point, several paragraphs or even pages later, I go back to find out the meanings. Usually I find that those words don’t alter the overall meaning much, but they add nuance or description, which enriches the meaning, more than conveys it. I may have recognized that a character was afraid, but missed that he “trembled” (frissoné); or grasped that a character expressed something, but not understood that the statement was mumbled (bredouillé).

            Going back for a second look in this circumstance, both enriches reading comprehension, and for me, at least, appears to improve my retention of the words.

            I’ve worked a lot with flashcards, trying to build up my vocabulary that way. Scholars (e.g., Isabel Beck) have long touted the idea that an average of 16 repetitions are needed to hold onto a word. The flashcards worked great when I had a very limited French vocabulary, but now they don’t help much.

            However, repetition is important, but some repetitions seem more effective than others. For example,

L’horizon s’elevait comme un pliage de papier, des collines triangulaires montaient comme si on repliait le sol plat.

The horizon arose like a folded piece of paper, the triangular hills rising as if someone had folded again the flat ground.

          When I read that I got that the horizon was rising, and that it had something to do with paper, but I was lost by the “pliage” (folding)… I was fine with the rising hills, too, but the “repliait” tripped up.  Looking up the first unknown helped me with the comprehension, but it was the quick appearance of the second that closed the deal on word learning. I looked up repliait and when I found refolded, I went back and made the comparison, and that seemed to be enough for that one to stick in memory.

          Of course, I don’t always look up all the unknown words. A sentence like the one in the example is not particularly important in the plot; I might recognize that it is just description of a setting and so might choose not to focus on it. When you are struggling to understand a text, getting every bit of description and nuance is neither necessary nor practical.  That does not mean the information is unimportant and that kids don’t need to learn to use nuances of such vocabulary to engage in close reading. In this example, the setting is describing where a massacre is about to take place in Vietnam. The two main characters are a painter and a writer. Part of the beauty of this passage depends on this painterly/writerly description of a world on paper; the description reveals not just that it was hilly where they were, but that the character was leaving his world on paper or canvas to enter a very different and horrific three-dimensional world.

          Often when I look up a word and then confront it again soon after, the act of having to figure it out in context seems to promote longer memory for the word. Whereas looking up the word today, and then confronting it again tomorrow or even several pages later, tends to require that I look up such words again and again.… they just don’t stick until I can  actually use my knowledge of the word to figure out its meaning (“remembering” is not the right term for this since it seems to be more of an interaction of memory and context).

          This suggests the value of having students read longer texts, like books, since particular authors have a tendency to reuse particular words. Book reading –as opposed to short selections or excerpts  --probably increases the possibility of this kind of repetition. However, even when students are asked to read shorter texts that lack such re-using, it would be possible to come up with exercises that create this effect. Thus kids might read, then look up the unknown vocabulary, then engage in additional reading exercises that re-use those words in various contexts.

          This experience has suggested to me that we need to be more experimental in our approaches to dealing with vocabulary in reading. I think teachers should try out different routines, such as the ones suggested here, to see how they work. And, there are probably at least a couple of doctoral dissertations in these suggestions (the value of varying the timing of the look-ups seems especially obvious).


          Au revoir.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Vocabulary Teaching

Teacher question: What do you recommend is the best way to teach vocabulary to struggling readers at the middle school level?  

My snappy reply:
          I know of no special ways of teaching vocabulary to that group of students. Vocabulary is one of the many areas of instruction that one doesn’t find much in the way of interactions. What I mean by that is that usually, when it comes to teaching, what works with some kids, works with all or most kids. Struggling readers tend to be a bit slower in picking things up and consequently they tend to benefit a bit more from explicit teaching and increased repetition—but the same patterns of success are to be expected from everyone.

          Vocabulary learning is incremental and there are more words that kids need to learn than we can teach. Kids need lots of opportunities to confront words in their reading and listening. Beyond that, teachers should focus attention on some of these words, by providing explanation of the words, or having the students explaining them from context themselves. Having kids read challenging materials—that is materials that use words they might not yet know, and then drawing their attention to these words through questioning, etc. is very important. That, in fact, should be a big part of the classroom context: understanding and communicating are important in this classroom and words are a big part of that. Students need to be encouraged to pay attention to words.

          You can also teach some particularly important or powerful words explicitly to help accelerate student progress in vocabulary. Here are some recommendations about how that teaching can be successful:

Word knowledge is multi-dimensional. Students learn words best when they have opportunities to think of words deeply—rather than just through definitions. Focus on the encyclopedia description more than the dictionary definition. Consequently, one of my favorite vocabulary activities is to have students writing multiple “definitions” for words, rather than single definitions.

           Say you wanted to teach the word rope. The dictionary definition is “a length of strong cord made by twisting together strands of natural fibers such as hemp or artificial fibers such as polypropylene.” But that’s not good enough. I would also want the students to come up with some synonyms for rope (e.g., cord, twine, string), and a real-example (like “my mom uses rope for a clothesline in our basement” or “we have a rope that the girls play jump rope with during recess”). What category does rope belong to? Tools or things we can tie, perhaps. And, it’s a noun (a thing, specifically). How about a comparison? Rope is like stringer, but thicker and stronger because it is made of several strands. Let’s also have kids act this one out. Perhaps they’d pretend to climb a rope or they’d have an imaginary “tug of war.” Drawing a picture of a rope would be another kind of definition or description, and providing a sentence that uses a word in a way that shows that you know what it means is a good idea, too (“I tied the boxes together with a piece of rope”). [This exercise can be elaborated on lots of ways: using the words in analogies such as “rope is to cord as a street is to a lane”; listing different forms of the word by using various prefixes and suffixes, trying to use forms of the word in different ways grammatically as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives etc.—“The cowboy is roping a calf.” “Since I started riding a bicycle, my muscles have gotten ropey.”]

Word learning is social. Words are learned best when students have a lot of opportunity to interact and connect around words. For example, the multiple definition exercise described above is most effective when kids don’t do that by themselves. Have them work on that kind of assignment in teams. That requires that they talk to each other and help each other to figure out the word meanings and that they provide explanations of the words. Another possibility: instead of having everyone looking up 8-10 words in the dictionary, assign 2-4 words to each group (I usually overlap these, so that more than one group gets a particular word). Then have the groups take turn teaching each other the words.

Words need to be connected with other words. Words relate each other in lots of ways and understanding how they fit together can help. Many vocabulary programs group words together: words about using our legs (e.g., run, amble, leap, meander) words about talking (e.g., swore, vowed, yelled, recitation), health and medical words (e.g., exercise, diet, calories, cholesterol). That can be tough to replicate in a classroom setting, but this can be done effectively in retrospect, too. As students learn new words keep track of them (e.g., a word wall, a vocabulary bulletin board). Then have them trying to group words: which ones go together—building categories out of the relationships among the words that have been taught. Synonyms aren’t the only kinds of relationships either. Have students consider various relationships (for the rope example above, consider uses or functions (e.g., clothesline, rope climbing, rodeo—roping calves); parts (e.g., fibers, strands); who uses these (e.g., cowboys, gym teachers, campers, someone doing laundry).

Words need to be used in lots of ways. Organize your lessons so students have many opportunities to read the words of interest, to hear them orally, to use the words orally themselves, and to write the words in context (I’m not talking about just copying a word). Put vocabulary into the context of communication, learning, and language use—that means lots of speaking, listening, reading, and writing with the focus words.

Words need to be connected to kids’ lives. Beck and McKeown’s “Word Wizards” is great for this. Have kids watch for their words in use, and give them credit if they bring in evidence of having used or come across the words that they are learning. 


Words don’t stick easily. Include lots of opportunity for review. Words need to accumulate across the entire school year, and that means going back to them again and again. The re-categorizing that I described above is a great review activity. If you test kids vocabulary with a weekly quiz, make it cumulative—continually recycle some of the older words. Set aside weeks where you don’t focus on new words, but on a larger number of the previously studied ones. And, of course, give kids lots of opportunity to re-confront the words in text.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Disciplinary Vocabulary

            When I was 8, there were two boys, Chris and Paul. They were both tow-heads, gentle and quiet, with loping walks; and both could draw beautifully… if a teacher struggled to draw a straight line or a round circle on the chalkboard, she’d ask Chris or Paul, who could do it, seemingly without effort.
            Oh, and by the way, they were identical twins.
            I couldn’t tell Chris and Paul apart. Few students or teachers could.
            At the time, I was jealous—not of their sweetness or facility—but of the idea of being a twin. It looked cool.
            Now that I’m older that kind of constant confusion doesn’t look so fun.
            Think of disciplinary literacy and content area literacy. They are not the same, but many teachers can’t tell them apart. I don’t think anyone will make a Parent Trap movie about them, but you get the idea.
            Basically, disciplinary literacy refers to specialized texts and ways of using literacy in the disciplines. Historians, mathematicians, literary critics, and scientists read and write differently because they create different kinds of knowledge and rely on different kinds of evidence.
            Content literacy, on the other hand, is about teaching reading using subject matter texts, and the emphasis is on the use of general reading or study skills in different classes or in different kinds of books.
            But what about vocabulary?
            Learning vocabulary will be pretty much the same, no matter what field of study we are talking about. Memorizing a word is no different in a third-grade social studies class or in medical school.
            Helping kids to learn words means focusing on deep or extensive definitions, intensive and varied repetition of the words, examining relationships among words, making personal connections to words, and lots of review.
            But remember, a disciplinary literacy approach tries to make students aware of the special properties and purposes of the disciplines. What it takes to learn new words may stay the same, but the nature of vocabulary does differ across fields. For example, a large portion of science words are built from Latin and Greek combining forms.
            By contrast, vocabulary in history tends to be ideological in nature. Words don’t just have meanings, they have points of view (something mathematicians and scientists try to avoid when coining terms). Do your students study the U.S. Civil War, the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression?  
            A very different take, but an interesting one, on disciplinary vocabulary is promoted by the book, Word ID: Assessment across the Content Areas by Linda Gutlohn & Frances Bessellieu (2014). It is based upon an analysis of 4,500 content area words. They have identified the most common morphemes in the different subject areas (Grades 6-12); providing lists of prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms by subject area. These specialized lists are interesting, with both overlap and separateness.
            Teaching students the nature of vocabulary differences across the disciplines makes sense, but it also makes sense to focus vocabulary work on the special properties of the words that come up often in the different subject areas. Sort of like recognizing all the “twinness” between Chris and Paul—but not neglecting what made each of them so uniquely special.

             

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Loose Ends in the Waning Days of Summer

It's the time of year, when parents and kids are stocking up on school supplies and teachers are decorating bulletin boards and scrambling through professional development days while poring over their new class lists. For me, it is a good time to say a last word on some disparate issues.

Teach Your Baby to Read
Awhile back, an entry here focused on the “Teach Your Baby to Read” program (Teach Your Baby to Read Blog Entry). I criticized those programs for fostering a mis-definition of reading as word memorization and said it was not likely to be effective. I pointed out the need for research. That turned out to be a controversial blog and it generated lots of response. Most critics were parents, two of whom even offered to bring their toddlers to me to see that they were reading.

It is hard to invest in something that doesn’t work; it creates “cognitive dissonance.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that people look hard for reasons to like those things that they have already bought into. Buy a new car and you start reading more car ads than before because you look for evidence that confirms your good judgment.

This week, Susan Neuman and her colleagues published, in the Journal of Educational Psychology, a randomized control trial of studies on baby literacy programs. Their conclusion: “Our results indicated that babies did not learn to read.” The programs had no impact on measures of early literacy and language. Nevertheless, the parents who delivered the programs were sure they were working. Cognitive dissonance strikes again.

Teaching Vocabulary to English Learners
My recent blogs on academic vocabulary elicited this request: “I love that you are addressing this topic! Any advice for those of us working with large populations of ELL students?”

It's a good question. Research suggests vocabulary learning supports reading comprehension, and this impact is greater with ELLs than native speakers. ELL students are less likely to know English words, so teaching words would have a particularly powerful impact for them. 

One thing that is different for ELL kids is that it is not just academic vocabulary that they lack. If we only teach book language or the words that aren’t usually heard in oral discourse, then ELL kids may be left out. It is essential that ELLs be assessed to determine their language status. If their language development is similar to that of their English classmates, then emphasizing academic vocabulary with them makes great sense.

More likely, however, their language will lag behind. In such cases, providing them with additional instruction in vocabulary would make sense. But this instruction should focus on oral language—not written. Claude Goldenberg has promoted the idea of having a daily period devoted to English language instruction for ELLs and that makes great sense to me. Give these kids a chance to close the gap with their English-speaking peers.

I would also argue that it is important to do more than teach word meanings. That has value, of course, but so do listening comprehension and grammar lessons. Language includes more than words.

My Daughters 
There have been many responses to my blogs about teaching my daughters to read. The most chastening was from my eldest who claims I attributed the anecdotes to the wrong daughters. That may be the case, as since they were little, I often would call them by the wrong names. I always told them they were lucky that we didn’t have a dog (who knows they might have come to think Fido was their name).

I also heard from someone who wanted to know the impact of teaching the girls on their later school performance. E., the oldest, who entered school reading at a third-grade level, was chagrined to find that the kindergarten teacher would spend the year teaching letter names and sounds (she enjoyed the inflatable letter people). They let her attend first-grade part-time that year which didn’t help much since those kids could read either. She loved the freedom of being able to leave kindergarten for first-grade and, to her thinking, it was a good year. She later skipped a grade to try to get a closer match (I wish we hadn’t done that, but it was the only choice given the teaching available to her at the time—not the case in all schools).


M., the youngest who was slow at language learning, entered kindergarten with more modest accomplishments (she was reading at about a grade 1 level). Her advantages were less obvious, but I suspect more valuable. There was a very real chance that M. would have struggled with reading when she entered school. Instead, her biggest weakness was a modest strength. I have long believed that if I hadn’t taught E. to read, she would have learned at school quickly and easily anyway. M., on the other hand, may have languished with the wrong teacher or program, and she may have played catch up in language from then on. Her reading levels might have been less remarkable initially, but her reading success was guaranteed.

Both girls did well in school, and one has a degree in law and the other in engineering.