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Vocabulary Is Comprehension

by Laura Robb
 | Jun 30, 2015

The day before an Informal Reading Inventory (IRI), I always spend a class period getting to know the student. This provides me with insights that support my questions and decisions during the assessment, but it also helps students to relax as we learn about one another. During our conversation, Diego, a seventh grader, told me that he “hates” reading and never reads outside of school. He looked away from me when he muttered, “I’m going to fail this year. I can’t do the work.”

Near the end of our discussion, I asked Diego, “How can I help you with reading?” Ending with this question always provides information because most middle-grade students know why reading challenges them. However, they don’t talk about their deficits, unless asked.

“Words,” he said. “Gimme words. I don’t have words to understand the books.” Diego was on target, for the results of the IRI placed him at a beginning fourth-grade instructional level. Moreover, Diego’s vocabulary gap would continue to widen unless his teachers motivated him to read 30–40 self-selected books on topics that interest him. Choice in independent reading, along with expert instruction, could help Diego narrow his vocabulary gap while improving his reading skill.

Results from a 2012 study completed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—known as the Nation’s Report Card—compared vocabulary scores and reading comprehension scores and found a tight correlation between vocabulary and comprehension. Students who scored high in comprehension also scored high on vocabulary.

Most developing readers have a vocabulary gap similar to Diego’s and are instructionally two or more years below grade level. In addition to reading self-selected books with ease and enjoyment, it’s equally important to have daily vocabulary instruction relating to materials students use in every subject. Use daily 10–15-minute vocabulary lessons to do the following:

  • Preteach words that don’t have strong context clues in the text. Make the learning active and create a sentence with each word that will enable students to figure out meaning as it’s used in the text.
  • Avoid teaching one word. Words are part of networks: synonyms, antonyms, concepts, families, and multiple forms of a word. For example, the word in a text is transfixed. Have students build a network of synonyms such as fascinated, marveled, enchanted, enthralled, and captivated.
  • Model how you use context to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words. Then ask students to practice. Discovering the meaning of a word using context clues ensures that students will pinpoint the word’s meaning as it’s used in the text.
  • Help students learn figurative language. They can use it to deepen their comprehension of texts by connecting the figure of speech to a theme, big idea, conflict, and so on.

As you plan vocabulary lessons, consider using this structure:

  • Title of the Vocabulary Lesson: states the lesson’s focus
  • Goals: explains the aims you want to achieve
  • Texts: use an excerpt from a literary or informational text that’s part of or relates to your curriculum to make the connection between word learning and comprehension concrete
  • Materials: texts that students need to complete the lesson

Collaborate and plan lessons with colleagues on your grade-level team or in the same department. I’m hoping that you will include daily 10–15-minute active-learning lessons that can enlarge students’ general academic and domain-specific vocabulary and reverse the vocabulary deficits of developing readers. Remember to encourage independent reading of self-selected books, for this is the reading achievement accelerator. Be sure to create possible scaffolds or adjustments to the lesson that meet English learners and special education students where they are and gently nudge them forward.

The lesson should involve students reading a complex text, engaging them in paired discussions of the text and the vocabulary, asking partners to share their thinking with the entire class, write the word’s forms and multiple meanings, use the word in a sentence to show an understanding of the word, or find synonyms and antonyms.

Using a mix of explicit teacher instruction, shared reading, collaboration,
and independent work can lead to shrinking the vocabulary gap for middle grade students who “hate reading.”

Laura Robb is the author of several classic books on literacy, including the Smart Writing series and Teaching Middle School Writers. With more than four decades of teaching experience, she conducts professional development workshops throughout the United States. 

Robb will present a session entitled “Vocabulary Is the Key to Comprehending Complex Texts: Teaching Consistent Daily Word Lessons” on Saturday, July 18, at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis, MO, July 18–20. This session will show the relationship between students' vocabulary and their ability to comprehend grade-level, complex texts. Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.

 

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