"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, December 23, 2013

Myths and Facts Regarding Vocabulary

Language is one medium through which we express our ideas, observations and inquiries. Language is the bloodstream of learning. Language is our window and door to the world we live in. Language begins with our mouth and ears. Formal schooling then works through the first three years of elementary education, teaching us to use our eyes. Language, of course, contains structures. Without grammar or rules, language appears no different than a mere mixed bag of words. Without spelling, words appear no different than a random arrangement of letters. Throughout basic education, these language skills are supposed to be learned. The foundation of all of these is vocabulary. It is where language learning starts in the early years. It is where language learning continues in the adult years. Learning words is key to learning a language. Thus, it is necessary to look into evidence-based research to see what works and what does not work in vocabulary instruction.

Susan B. Neuman and Esther Quintero have compiled a set of myths and facts regarding word learning in their book, All About Words:


Here is the list (copied from the Albert Shanker Institute blog):


MYTHS

  • There is a vocabulary explosion period in a child's language development. 
Word learning is perceived to start rather slowly, then at about 16 months or when a child learns about 50 words, all of a sudden, there seems to be a “vocabulary explosion” or “word spurt” – a time when children dramatically increase their ability to acquire new words. Recent evidence, however, does not support this view. By contrast, it suggests that children accumulate words at a constant rate and that it is the written and verbal use of these words that accelerates. Thus, the course of word learning has little to do with explosions, bursts, or spurts; word learning is constant and cumulative. This means that the optimal time for oral vocabulary instruction and development is not limited to the toddler years; it occurs before, during and after those years.
  • Reading storybooks is sufficient for oral vocabulary development. 
Reading books to children is a powerful strategy for vocabulary development, but recent studies have begun to question whether the technique is substantial enough to boost all children’s language development. Several meta-analyses have reported only small to moderate effects of book reading on vocabulary growth, which suggests that exposure to words through storybooks may not be potent enough, particularly for at-risk students. This means that teachers will need to augment read-aloud experiences with more intentional strategies that require children to process words at deeper levels of understanding. 
  • Teachable moments – or informal opportunities to engage children in word learning – are sufficient for explaining word meanings. 
Most teachers try to consciously engage children in active experiences that involve lots of conversation throughout the day. Teachable moments are informal opportunities to engage children in word learning, similar to the types of language exchanges that occur between parents and children. But repetition is key here –and teachers, unlike parents, don’t always have this luxury. Teachers need to adopt a much more strategic approach to vocabulary instruction. Children need planned, sequenced, and systematic vocabulary instruction. This means selecting words, concepts, and ideas that matter most right from the very beginning and focusing on those throughout the early years. 
  • The vocabulary scope and sequence in core reading programs generally have a good selection of words for oral vocabulary instruction. 
Neuman and colleagues examined the prevalence of oral vocabulary instruction in core reading programs at the pre-K level, finding a dearth of instructional guidance for teachers, despite some “mentioning” of words. The elementary grades are much different; although there is greater attention to words, there is a tremendous disparity across curricula. Until appropriate materials are developed and made available consistently, teachers will have to rely on research-based principles to ensure that students receive the oral language instruction they need. 
  • Children Are Word Sponges. 
Children seem to pick up words so prodigiously and effortlessly that, too often, word learning has been assumed to occur naturally. But there is ample evidence to suggest that word learning is complex and incremental. Think about children’s struggles to understand color words. It is not until about age four that most children accurately apply individual color terms. Typically, words such as red or yellow can appear early in children’s vocabulary; but the application of these words may be haphazard and interchangeable. Word learning requires many exposures over an extended period of time. With each additional exposure, the word may become incrementally closer to being fully learned. 

FACTS
  • Children  need repeated exposure to gain vocabulary.
Children seem to pick up words so prodigiously and effortlessly that, too often, word learning has been assumed to occur naturally. But there is ample evidence to suggest that word learning is complex and incremental. Think about children’s struggles to understand color words. It is not until about age four that most children accurately apply individual color terms. Typically, words such as red or yellow can appear early in children’s vocabulary; but the application of these words may be haphazard and interchangeable. Word learning requires many exposures over an extended period of time. With each additional exposure, the word may become incrementally closer to being fully learned.
  • Teachers have to be intentional about choosing words to teach in 
    order for children to build their vocabulary. 
Teachers must carefully select the words they plan to teach. It’s best to focus on
high-utility but sophisticated words such as "fortunate" instead of "lucky." Also, 
teachers must consider content-related words very early on; such words will 
serve as anchors for developing knowledge in key subject areas. For instance, 
science vocabulary words such as compare, contrast, observe, and predict; these 
are fundamental inquiry words used across subject areas. Introducing students to 
these words helps them to build knowledge that is essential for learning 
systematically from texts. 
  • Children need both explicit and implicit instruction to learn the 
    meaning of words. 
Prior to the beginning of a story, for example, a teacher might begin by introducing several words that are integral to the story. While vocabulary gains are higher when words are identified explicitly, the largest gains occur when teachers provide both explicit and implicit instruction. In other words, when teachers make children aware of the meaning of the words and engage them in using those words in a specific relevant context.
  • Words should be taught in categories, based around their inclusion 
    in a larger category. 
Words represent the tip of the iceberg; underlying them is a set of emerging interconnections and concepts. It is the rich network of concepts and facts accompanying these words that aids in children’s comprehension. Helping children to learn new words in clusters that represent knowledge networks has been shown to strongly support children’s inferential reasoning and comprehension. Teaching words this way also aids in retention thereby accelerating word learning. Children learn best when words are presented in integrated contexts that make sense to them.
  • Teachers should have ongoing professional development in oral 
    vocabulary instruction to ensure that children make significant, 
    accelerated gains.
Children’s oral vocabulary development can be significantly improved through intervention. However, research has shown that untrained teachers and teachers with limited educational backgrounds are not as effective in helping children make significant gains in vocabulary. This finding highlights the importance of ongoing professional development for teachers and aides who regularly work with children.








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