It’s finals week here, which–so far–has provided several very interesting changes. First, there were a lot more folks around when I stepped off the bus at 7:50 am. Not only were there more people, they were moving at increased rates of speed. Noticeably so. Clutching steaming cups in gloved hands, they streamed toward lecture halls and classrooms, comparing notes and talking theory. As I was dodging a bike hurtling around a bike circle, I overheard: “It’s just three simple compounds. Why can’t I remember it?” The other thing I noticed is that many students seem impressively adept at walking and reading. I’m a big fan of all things reading, but have never even contemplated trying to study and walk at the same time! I wish our students well this week as they walk and study and talk and test. I am also sending out positive energy that they will not only successfully demonstrate what they’ve learned this quarter during finals week, but also that they continue to develop and leverage their knowledge to keep striving toward their goals.
In my new role, I am learning a lot (and I do mean A LOT) about people, especially when the hear my job title. I recognize that slight, involuntary recoil that occurs within a particular group of people when the hear the words accreditation or assessment. I used to be one of them.
When I first started teaching in a university setting, I truly wanted my students to feel free to express themselves. My job–as I conceived of it–was to support their development as writers. Never mind that many of them didn’t (and may still not) view themselves as writers–I wanted them all to feel like they had the capacity to communicate effectively (in case they ever discovered a need for such a thing). I had a vague understanding of my own writing abilities then, and believed that although I was just a step or two ahead of my first-year students, it would be enough to get us through. It didn’t occur to me then (or if it did, I have no recollection) that perhaps the most important part of my job was to articulate my expectations of and for them, so they could make informed decisions about their own learning.
Looking back, I imagine my first students experienced something not unlike my own upbringing: a free-spirited, free-wheeling, mostly unstructured meander, where learning was primarily spurred by luck. I’m not saying that’s a bad approach. It’s just not the one I would choose now. (And, I should probably add here: my course evaluations have always been pretty positive, so there’s that.)
What has changed for me as a teacher (which I’ll always be, regardless of job title) is that I understand why it is so incredibly important to understand and articulate what I expect of students. And that’s where assessment comes in.
CAVEAT LECTOR: these are my personal opinions, not dictates for others.
For me, thinking about teaching and learning through the lens of assessment is a given. I know that in my own experiences as a student, I needed the structure of expectations in order to manage my time and energy. Knowing ahead of time what I needed to do to demonstrate my mastery in a particular class requires me to become responsible for monitoring my own effort and establishing priorities. One of my worst / best classes was in a department outside the department / college from which I received my doctorate. I loved the course because it introduced concepts which fascinated me. I hated the course because every week, the professor arrived with a whole new set of assignments, none of which ever included an explanation of how the activities would help us achieve the course goals. I didn’t think of my experience in those terms, but looking back, that’s what was happening.
I know the temptation of exciting activities and compelling assignments. For years, I planned my instruction around activities without thinking through how they would promote student learning in the long term. I think about those students who stumbled along with me before I learned about using assessment as a planning tool, and wonder how much more we could have achieved together had I begun by thinking about the end of the journey, not just the beginning.
It’s Banned Books Week, which despite what a friend posted on Facebook, is NOT the week when we decide what books we want to ban for the next year. My first memory of participating in Banned Books Week was when I worked at Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks (now known as Bookshelf Stores, Inc.) way back in the twentieth century. We put together a display at the front of the store, featuring books that had been regularly challenged. We even managed to get the local paper to cover the event. The other thing I remember is that, when asked, a local school official said that the district didn’t experience much controversy related to challenged texts because they didn’t include said texts in their courses. Now, I could be misremembering that last bit, but there is an emotional resonance to the memory that I can’t shake.
When I was in high school (even further back in the last century!), I remember having to get my mother’s signature on a permission slip so I could read The Color Purple in my 11th grade English class. She was incensed and offended, but not for reasons one might imagine. My mother had her own (special) approach to parenting, which included a fervent belief in my freedom to read. (Hence, my choice of Agatha Christie novels when I was ten, and Rebecca when I was twelve, and which turned out to be required reading in 12th grade…). How else, she explained later, was I going to develop my own understanding of literature?
More recently, I was teaching a methods course, which focused on using children’s and young adult literature to promote K-12 students’ literacy development. It was Banned Books Week, so naturally (!) our discussion focused on the nuanced understanding required of classroom teachers when it comes to literature. Our conversation was difficult and honest and revelatory.
In response to my hypothetical question about how they would handle a book challenge, students wrote and thought and began to share. One student talked about a book she might not have wanted her own children to read (And Tango makes three), until she learned that it was based on a true story. She told us that in considering the book, she realized that, as a future teacher, she would need to interrogate her personal feelings about topics in light of her responsibilities for teaching all of her students. Another student said that he would simply provide a book list to parents at the beginning of the year, and ask them for their input (and approval). I asked if he was planning to let parents approve the texts for the math curriculum, too.
Like the American Library Association, I fully support the right of parents to be involved in decisions about what their child(ren) reads. In fact, I’d argue that it’s parents’ (guardians’) responsibility to be engaged with all of the texts their children read, watch, play, etc. However, I adamantly believe that no one has the right to tell other people’s children what they can read. No way. No how.
Every year, the ALA receives reports of attempts to challenge, restrict, and/or ban books in public schools and libraries. Last year, the number–that they know about–was well over 300. They estimate the actual number could be much higher:
We do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges as research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported. In addition, OIF has only been collecting data about banned banned books since 1990, so we do not have any lists of frequently challenged books or authors before that date.
Every year, I review the list of books to see which challenges I find the most confusing. Below are two of my all-time-head-scratchers:
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is often on the challenge list. In 2010, Speak was challenged in the Republic, Mo. schools because of two concerns. 1) Someone believed the book qualified as “soft-pornography”; and 2) someone claimed the book “glorifies drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.”
Source: Nov. 2010, pp. 243–44. I don’t know what they’re reading or watching in Republic, Missouri, but a book about the devastating aftereffects of a date rape can hardly be categorized as either of the above. (But, of course, Todd Akin is from Missouri, so perhaps that explains the book challenger’s confusion.) Aside from the specious nature of the challenge (I truly don’t see how someone could come to those conclusions having actually read the book in question!), there is the very real fact that the book is about what has become an all-too-often-reality for young adults. We can’t make the bad things go away by hiding the books in which they are discussed honestly.
Speaking of which, here is my all-time-favorite challenged book: The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. That’s right. A dictionary. A parent in Menifee, California Union School District complained when a child came across the term “oral sex,” so school officials formed a committee to consider a permanent classroom ban of the dictionary. Source: Mar. 2010, p. 55.
George Orwell was right (you knew there’d be an Orwell reference, didn’t you?!?). If reference materials are removed from schools, then Ignorance really must be strength.
A few months ago, after reading the NMPED’s implementation plan for the Common Core standards, I promised a post about vocabulary development. The implementation plan describes six “shifts that that must take place in the next generation of curricula,” including a focus on academic vocabulary. There is a paragraph about the curricular shift related to academic vocabulary. Here it is:
Through reading, discussing, and writing about appropriately complex texts at each grade level, students build the general academic vocabulary they will need to access a wide range of complex texts in college and careers. Students gather as much as they can about the meaning of these words from the context of how the words are being used in the text. Teachers offer support as needed when students are not able to figure out word meanings from the text alone and for students who are still developing high frequency vocabulary (p.32).
Here’s the problem: the shift described in the plan A) isn’t much different than what a lot of folks are already doing and B) runs counter to the last five decades of research. The proposed curricular shift quoted above will NOT improve students’ ability to access, appreciate, and appropriate academic vocabulary.
There are many (many, many!) things in this world about which I am uncertain. This is not one of them.
How can I be so certain? Because when I preparing to write my dissertation (which–I just discovered–is available through google books and other online retailers), I read 60-years’ worth of scholarly articles on vocabulary development. Therefore, I am quite confident when I state: leaving students to “gather” information about vocabulary from context or by asking their teachers will not result in short- or long-term vocabulary growth.
What I know to be true about vocabulary development
(NOTE: if you choose to share this information with others, please respect my time and effort by citing this blog post.)
The short version:
- Vocabulary is vital to success in reading and comprehending (among other things) [too many to cite!].
- Some instruction is better than no instruction (Graves, 2006).
- Instruction which features a combination of definitional and contextual information is more effective than instruction that focuses on a single type of information (Mezynski, 1983; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).
- Students need long-term and rich instruction, multiple encounters, and opportunities for active learning in order to learn individual words (Beck et al., 2002).
- Teaching for word-ownership is a more effective approach to vocabulary instruction than teaching students to memorize individual words (Stahl & Nagy, 2006).
- Students who understand how words work (morphology, etymology) within sentences (syntax) are more likely to personalize and grow their own vocabulary knowledge.
The slightly-longer short version (from my dissertation):
Vocabulary is the primary resource within the meaning-making system of language. Teachers must, therefore, encourage students to see vocabulary as a resource for making meaning through effective and responsive instruction. “Virtually all authorities on literacy education agree. . . that vocabulary knowledge is vital to success in reading, in literacy more generally, in school, and in the world outside of school” (Graves, 2006, p. 2). Researchers have demonstrated conclusively that some instruction is better than no instruction (Graves, 2006); and that instruction which features a combination of definitional and contextual information is more effective than instruction that focuses on a single type of information (Mezynski, 1983; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). In order for students to learn—and retain—individual words, they need long-term and rich instruction, multiple encounters, and opportunities for active learning (Beck et al., 2002).
Instead of encouraging students to see themselves as agentive, traditional approaches to vocabulary teaching has taught students to see themselves as consumers, whose job it is to reproduce knowledge (Stahl & Nagy, 2006). For example, teaching students to look up, copy, memorize, and then reproduce dictionary definitions—a common strategy throughout the grades—is similar to teaching students to look up telephone numbers in the phonebook (Stahl & Nagy, 2006): “When you look up a phone number, ordinarily you remember it just long enough to dial it and then forget it almost immediately” (p. 64).
On the other hand, comprehensive vocabulary instruction that teaches specific words, immerses students in rich language, and promotes the growth of generative vocabulary knowledge facilitates a sense of ownership, as well as long-term vocabulary growth (Baumann, Edwards, Font, Tereshinski, Kame’enui, & Olejnik, 2002; Blachowicz & Fisher, 2004, 2006; Graves, 2006; Kamil & Hiebert, 2005; Scott & Nagy, 2004; Stahl, 1986; Stahl & Nagy, 2006; Templeton, 2004). Note: Graves (2006) divides the third element into: develop strategies for independent word learning, and raise word consciousness.
And finally, an excerpt from “Do not assume that words are like bricks”: Vocabulary Research in the 20th Century
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, researchers devoted much time and energy to investigating potential sources of vocabulary growth, which can be categorized loosely as incidental and instructional. Of course, there were studies which investigated a third possibility, and I label those mixed.
Incidental. Research in incidental growth of vocabulary reflects the underlying belief that there is no way that instruction alone can account for learning. Considering the size of vocabulary growth which occurs between 3rd and 7th grades, J. R. Jenkins, Stein, and Wysocki (1984) concluded that “there is reason to doubt that direct teaching of words accounts for the vocabulary growth said to occur during the upper elementary years” (p. 768); they tested their hypothesis that incidental learning from context would result in vocabulary growth in a study involving 112 fifth graders. The authors explained how their study filled a gap in the research: it explored factors that might influence incidental learning from context, including the relationship between frequency of exposure and learning; the role of prior experience; and the influence of reading ability.
To test their hypothesis, the authors administered four post-tests (three vocabulary, one reading comprehension) after an intervention during which students participated in word reading practice, and received a teacher demonstration; the participants received no explicit word meaning intervention. In their findings, the authors reported that the fifth grade students in the study learned (rather than derived) word meanings from context. However, the learning was neither easy nor large. The researchers found that at least two exposures were necessary to influence learning. They also concluded that prior exposure, or informal teaching, had pronounced effects on learning. In regards to the question about reading ability, they reported that “better readers were more likely to acquire word meanings” (J. R. Jenkins, Stein, & Wysocki, 1984, p. 781). Despite their findings, the authors concluded that they still had not achieved a satisfactory answer to the question of how vocabulary growth occurs during the school years.
McKeown (1985) distinguished her study from previous work by: creating more realistic settings for participants; extending research in word-meaning acquisition by asking how well participants could put their new knowledge to use; and by placing instructional implications at the center of the study. The purpose of McKeown’s (1985) study was to explore “differences in the process of acquiring word meanings from context in learners at different levels” (p. 483). The study included 30 fifth-graders, who completed a meaning-acquisition task created by the author, which led each participant “through a series of contexts containing an artificial word which eventually directed him or her to a designated meaning the word” (McKeown, 1985, p. 484). Participants received scores on seven steps: recognizing and testing of constraints (e.g. considering global and local contexts in accepting or rejecting words as possible definitions for the artificial word in the example sentence); coordination of differing contexts (e.g. the participant used information from divergent example sentences to make choices about possible meanings); exposure to additional contexts in which participants had an opportunity to refine word meaning; a task which asked participants to identify the target word’s meaning; and an evaluation task, in which participants decided whether an example sentence using the target word was good or bad (McKeown, 1985, pp. 486-487).
McKeown (1985) concluded that a child’s ability to work within contextual limits “enables one to extract accurate information about potential work meaning from context” (p. 492), and that the higher ability participants were significantly more able to do this than their lower ability counterparts. She also found evidence of “semantic interference [which] suggests that multiple contexts may impair the ability of low-ability learners to derive information from context regarding word meaning, at least if they are left to do so on their own” (McKeown, 1985, p. 493). Acquiring meaning from context is a complex and multi-staged process, and McKeown (1985) concluded that “even under conditions that seem nearly optimal, successful outcomes may not be forthcoming” (p. 493). McKeown’s (1985) final conclusion, which bore important instructional implications, was that lower-ability students required more than multiple exposures and having correct definitions in order to achieve ownership over new vocabulary. One possible remedy she proposed to address this problem was teacher modeling that would help learners to grasp the dynamic nature of word meanings, and to provide students with guided practice in testing word meanings in varying contexts.
Similarly, Nagy, Herman, and Anderson (1985) investigated whether students’ acquired vocabulary incidentally while reading natural text in a study involving 57 at- or above-grade-level eighth grade students. Participants read either a spy narrative or expository text about river systems, and then completed a story memory task related. After a brief interval, researchers interviewed students to ascertain degrees of understanding for the target words. Finally, the researchers administered a multiple-choice test measuring degrees of word knowledge. The interview and multiple-choice measures both demonstrated small, but significant learning from context. Keeping in mind the estimated number of words students must learn (Nagy & Anderson, 1984), the authors argued that their study provided further evidence to the benefits of wide reading as a way to promote vocabulary growth.
In a larger study, Nagy, Anderson, and Herman (1987) attempted to determine whether students would make gains in vocabulary knowledge as a result of incidental learning during normal reading. The study included 352 students in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th grades. The classroom teachers administered the Anderson-Freebody Checklist Vocabulary Test (Anderson & Freebody, 1983, as cited by Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1985) two weeks prior to the first of the two sessions which comprised the study. During the first session, participants read either two expository passages or two narrative passages (all were from grade-level texts). A week later, the researchers returned to the classroom, which was a surprise to participants, in order to administer a multiple-choice measure. The results of the study demonstrated “beyond reasonable doubt that incidental learning of word meanings does take place during normal reading” (Nagy et al., 1987, p. 261). The authors concluded that this study supported their earlier contention (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985) that reading “lots of good texts” (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987, p. 240) would lead to long-term vocabulary growth.
Herman, Anderson, Pearson, and Nagy (1987) explored the relationship between text features and incidental learning of vocabulary. Specifically, they examined how text features such as macrostructure (titles, topic sentences, and organizational strategies), microstructure (words that clarify temporal and logical relationships between words, phrases, and clauses), and conceptual elaborations (the degree to which concepts are expressed explicitly and concisely) affect readers’ incidental acquisition of vocabulary knowledge. The participants in this study were 309 eighth-grade students. The authors administered a multiple-choice test, which included each of the target words twice, with distractors that corresponded to two levels of difficulty; the Anderson-Freebody Checklist Vocabulary Test (Anderson & Freebody, 1983), as cited by Herman, Anderson, Pearson, & Nagy, 1987), which provided information about students’ prior knowledge; and an essay test. During the intervention, participants read different versions of a text, which had been altered to highlight macrostructure, microstructure, or elaboration of central concepts. The authors’ major finding was that students who received the elaborated concepts text experienced a greater increase in vocabulary growth than students who read the original or other revised versions. Therefore, the authors concluded that revising a text’s surface features would not be sufficient to promote incidental word acquisition. Rather, in support of Anderson and Freebody’s (1981) knowledge hypothesis, the authors concluded that “the concepts in the text must be elaborated so that a more complete body of knowledge is present” (Herman et al., 1987, p. 281).
Instructional. Bear and Odbert (1941) warned against over-reliance on using context to arrive at word meanings so that words did not remain “complete strangers” (p. 754). They also warned that, “The reader who has little insight and who is satisfied with a superficial dependence on context may continue to read at a low level of efficiency and make little vocabulary growth” (R. M. Bear & Odbert, 1941, p. 759). Similarly, Seegers(1946) warned against encouraging students to rely too much on context to determine the meanings of unknown words, and recommended that teachers “provide a classroom and school climate encouraging to the development of ideas and providing opportunities for reading, talking, writing, and thinking about [words and their underlying concepts]” (Seegers, 1946, p. 67). Therefore, researchers who believed that the source of vocabulary growth was related to direct instruction searched for the most effective instructional methods.
Miles (1945) explored the degree to which direct instruction affects students’ vocabulary growth over a two-and-a-half year period. Miles’ (1945) population consisted of sixty students in their second semester of twelfth grade; thirty of those students had received a semester of “intensive direct vocabulary instruction” (p. 285), during the first semester of tenth grade. The other thirty functioned as a control, because they had not received the intensive vocabulary instruction. Students in the vocabulary group received instruction designed to foster appreciation and comprehension of word meanings, with an emphasis on their oral vocabularies; the instruction also included blackboard work, spelling, sentence-writing, study of grammar, and vocabulary notebooks. Miles (1945) measured vocabulary knowledge with a standardized test, and reported a gain in median scores. “The gain by the direct method of teaching vocabulary even for one semester as shown by this experiment seems sufficiently significant to warrant further experimentation and study” (Miles, 1945, p. 286). The problem with Miles’ (1945) study, of course, is that she did not describe the actual methods of instruction, making it less useful to researchers looking to repeat the gains in vocabulary growth with other populations.
In contrast, Jenkins (1942) early study provided more information about the types of instruction used during the intervention. Jenkins (1942) investigated the degree to which “systematic vocabulary instruction improves general reading achievement and to determine the relative effectiveness of four methods of vocabulary study” (p. 347). Her study included the students in five seventh grade classes. Four of the classes received fourteen weeks of instruction, each with a different instructional approach. The fifth class operated as the control; they received no specific vocabulary instruction, except when specifically requested by a student. The four treatment groups were as follows: Class E1 worked in workbooks, which were supplemented by individual vocabulary notebooks, dictionary work, and discussion; Class E2 used word-cards, on which students recorded pronunciation and meaning, engaged in contextual discussion, and occasionally completed dictionary work; Class E3 made lists of synonyms, antonyms, and special words (such as vivid verbs, adjectives, and adverbs located in their reading); Class E4 engaged in morphological analysis, kept word study notebooks, and discussed word histories.
To ascertain the most effective approach to vocabulary instruction, Jenkins (1942) compared students’ progress on a standardized reading test, in recreational reading, and on functional use of vocabulary. She concluded that vocabulary instruction improved general reading abilities and influenced recreational reading. Of the methods tested, Jenkins (1942) found the word-card and word lists to be superior methods, but she warned that vocabulary instruction is not a “cure-all” for improving students’ overall achievement.
Gipe (1978-1979) designed a study of techniques for teaching word meanings which corresponded to three prominent views of vocabulary development: the association method; the category method; and the context method (p. 627). She also added a dictionary component, since dictionary work was commonly used as a method of learning new vocabulary. Her hypothesis was that “vocabulary retained by the subjects would differ according to which of the 4 methods they experienced” (Gipe, 1978-1979, p. 627). The participants were 113 students in four 3rd grade classes and 108 students in four 5th grade classes (due to absences, the final number of students in the study decreased to 93 and 78, respectively). In order to determine the target words for the study, Gipe (1978-1979) designed a checklist on which students indicated which of two sentences used an underlined word correctly; the classroom teachers administered the checklists as pre- and post- measures. Gipe (1978-1979) divided the 96 words most missed words into eight lists to be used during the study (one list per week for eight weeks). All participants received the same worksheet-based instruction (designed by the researcher) over the eight-week period, but the order in which each class received a particular method was determined randomly. In the association method, students memorized words paired with a familiar synonym or brief definition; the object of this task was to be able to reproduce the pairs later without looking at the worksheet. The category method required students to add words to a preexisting list of a target word plus three familiar words. Then, students sorted a random listed of the provided words without referring to their lists. In the context method, students read short passages containing the target words. After reading, the participants composed responses, based on personal experiences, to questions about the target words. During the dictionary training, participants were instructed to look up the target words, copy the definition, and write sentences containing the target words. At the end of each week, students completed an evaluation task, in which they filled blanks with the words they had learned that week. Analysis of the data led Gipe (1978-1979) to report a significant difference between the four methods; the context method was most consistently more effective in each analysis of the data. Gipe (1978-1979) extrapolated her results to discuss implications for instruction, and suggested that teachers implement the association method, which allow the learner to connect new vocabulary to already known words. It is important to note, that a follow-up study (Gipe, 1981, as cited by Beck & McKeown, 1991) did not support the earlier findings.
Direct instruction in deriving word meanings from context. Rather than rely on incidental learning alone, several studies aimed to raise students’ explicit awareness of ways to learn from context in order to leverage their vocabulary growth.
Carnine, Kame’enui and Coyle (1984) investigated the conditions under which context clues aid readers, and designed two studies, the first of which gathered descriptive data about students’ use of context clues “across levels of clarity, proximity, and learner experience” (p. 190). They reported the following findings: figuring out word meanings was easier when learner encountered the words in context; proximity of context clues aided learners; context clues in the form of synonyms were more useful to learners than other clues; and older students were more able to use context clues. The second study aimed to fill a gap the authors identified in a review of vocabulary research literature: “researchers have been less interested in pursuing intervention studies than they have in studies concerned with describing types of context clues” (Carnine et al., 1984, p. 196). Therefore, the second study compared two methods of vocabulary instruction: “rule plus systematic practice and systematic practice only” (Carnine et al., 1984, p. 197) with a control group which received no intervention. Their findings suggested “that intermediate-grade students cannot be assumed to have adequate contextual analysis skills” (Carnine et al., 1984, p. 200). Therefore the authors recommended a combination of direct instruction in deriving word meanings from context and intensive, systematic practice, which includes the opportunity to receive timely feedback.
After reviewing the research from the previous ten years, J. R. Jenkins, Matlock, & Slocum (1989) concluded that while students can learn from context, the probability of such learning is quite low. Rather, they argued that the two main sources of vocabulary growth come from direct instruction in the meanings of individual words and direct instruction in deriving individual word meanings from context. Their study investigated these two different methods with varying amounts of instruction (J. R. Jenkins et al., 1989). The 135 fifth-grade students who participated came from six intact classrooms, which were randomly assigned to the word meanings instruction treatment (three classes) and the deriving word meanings from context treatment (three classes). Additionally, within each of the classes, students were assigned to low, medium, and high amounts of practice.
The instructional procedures for the individual word meanings groups included definitions and sample sentences for the forty-five target words (which were divided into nine sets of five words). The low exposure group received 9 days of instruction in which they encountered each set of words once. Participants in the medium practice group received 11 days of instruction, with repetition of the first two sets of words. Students in the high exposure group received 20 days of instruction, during which they encountered all of the target words six times. Students in the deriving word meanings treatment groups were taught to use a general strategy, which emphasized the use of external context clues, whenever they encountered unfamiliar words. The strategy included five steps, for which the authors developed the acronym SCANR: “Substitute a word or expression for the unknown word. Check the context for clues that support your idea. Ask if substitution fits all context clues. Need a new idea? Revise your idea to fit the context” (J. R. Jenkins et al., 1989, p. 221, emphasis in original). As with the individual word meanings groups, participants in the deriving word meaning groups received 9, 11, and 20 days of instruction.
The researchers administered two pre-tests, which measured words-in-isolation and words-in-context. These tests included the forty-five target words, twenty of which were taught across all of the groups. Participants completed six post-tests, which included the same two pre-tests, two multiple-choice tests, and two tests which assessed students ability to derive meanings of nonsense words from context. Analyses were performed on the twenty words which were common to all treatment groups, and which pretests revealed were unknown to participants. The authors concluded that “the individual meanings instruction was superior to the deriving meaning instruction for teaching specific words” (J. R. Jenkins et al., 1989, p. 228) even at the lowest level of practice. Furthermore, more practice led to more learning. However, in the deriving meaning task, the training was deemed effective at helping students to infer meaning from context. Therefore, the researchers concluded that both instructional methods studied could substantially increase students’ vocabularies, because they operate in different ways. While the individual word meanings training added actual items to a student’s vocabulary, the deriving meaning training helped students to sharpen their ability to learn new words independent of direct instruction from a teacher (J. R. Jenkins et al., 1989).
White, Power, and White (1989) were among those who advocated a different approach to teaching students to arrive at word meanings: morphological analysis. Like other researchers of their time, White et al. (1989) were concerned with the mysterious, and for the most part unexplained, exponential growth in children’s vocabularies during the school years. Because direct instruction could not be shown to be responsible for the growth, White et al. (1989) proposed an alternative explanation to the incidental learning hypothesis. Building on the work of Tyler and Nagy (1987), who found that their participants were able to recognize the meaning of derivationally affixed high-frequency stems, as well as Wysocki and Jenkins’ (1987) evidence of the likelihood that morphological generalization made a contribution to students’ process of arriving at word knowledge, White et al. (1989) designed two studies to explore the role of morphological analysis in word learning. The first of White et al.’s (1989) studies examined the characteristics and frequency of affixed words, while the second study looked at characteristics of students. Their goal was to determine how much of vocabulary growth could be attributed to morphological generalization and whether direct instruction in morphological analysis could help students increase their vocabulary knowledge.
Although White et al.’s (1989) did not actually investigate an instructional model, the results of their linguistic and developmental analyses led them to conclude that close to 80 percent of the words that students were likely to encounter in school were indeed morphologically analyzable, and that students were likely to be able to conduct such analysis due to their knowledge of prefixes, stems, and affixes. Therefore, the authors concluded that their model of morphological analysis would be appropriate and beneficial for students in grades 4 and up.
Meta-analyses. Which of the aforementioned instructional methods was deemed the most effective? To answer that question, several meta-analyses conducted in the last part of the 20th century reviewed studies of instructional approaches to increasing students’ vocabularies.
Stahl (1986) proposed three principles for vocabulary instruction: include both definitional and contextual information; encourage “deep” processing; and provide multiple exposures. A primary goal of vocabulary instruction is to increase the number of words students know. It is also important, however, to attend to the depth and degrees of word knowledge. Not only do learners need to possess definitional information about a given word, they also need contextual information. Definitional information includes “knowledge of the logical relations between a word and other known words, as in a dictionary definition,” while contextual information “can be defined as knowledge of the core concept the word represents and how that core concept is changed in different contexts” (Stahl, 1986, p. 663). To improve comprehension, both types of information need to be present in a balanced manner. Therefore, knowing a word is more complex than simply recognizing it on a recall test.
Similarly, the second principle of effective instruction reflected developments in cognitive research, and encouraged teachers to help students move beyond superficial understandings of word meanings. Encouraging deep processing increased the chances that they would remember and be able to use the words in question. Stahl (1986) presented three increasingly deep levels of processing that enhanced overall reading comprehension. Association processing occurred when a learner created a link between the target word and its synonym, or between a word and a single context; comprehension processing happened when students demonstrated an understanding of the word meaning which went beyond the first-level association; finally, a student engaged in generation processing could extend the comprehension processing to use the word in novel settings. In order to achieve this depth of word knowledge or ownership, students must encounter words on multiple occasions and have opportunities to practice working with them (Stahl, 1986). The third principle, therefore, encouraged teachers to organize instruction so that it would provide students with multiple exposures to words, both of which “significantly improve comprehension” (Stahl, 1986, p. 665).
To decide which words to include in direct instruction (a subject upon which later researchers expanded, c.f. Beck et al., 2002), Stahl (1986) recommended that teachers consider whether knowing an unfamiliar word was necessary for overall text comprehension; whether the student would be likely to understand the word’s meaning based on context; and how thoroughly specific words would have to be taught in order for them to become known words in the student’s vocabulary. The research from which Stahl (1986) drew these conclusions was further detailed in Stahl and Fairbanks’ (1986) meta-analysis of the effects of vocabulary instruction on word learning and comprehension.
Citing work from the previous three decades, Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) argued that the differing results of those studies strongly suggested “the possibility that some methods of vocabulary instruction may be more effective than others” (p. 73). To ascertain the effectiveness of instructional methods, they examined 52 studies based on three method classification factors (definitional or contextual information; depth of processing; number of exposures) and two settings factors (individual vs. group instruction; time spent on instruction). They concluded that “vocabulary instruction is a useful adjunct to the natural learning from context” (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986, p. 100). Specifically, Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) reported that vocabulary instruction produced significant effects on reading comprehension of passages that contained words taught during the instruction, and produced smaller, but still significant effects on comprehension of passages that did not always contain words targeted for instruction. Methods that included both definitional and contextual information influenced comprehension positively, while definition-only methods, or limited exposure methods did not. Finally, Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) explained that “the effects of vocabulary instruction are subtle and complex, but, given their potential effects on comprehension, they are worthy of further investigation” (p. 104).
Kuhn and Stahl (1998) reviewed 14 studies, which investigated methods for teaching students to learn words from context. They traced methodological trends, ranging from providing students with explicit taxonomies of context clues, to instruction designed to help students use cognitive strategies flexibly, to more general guidelines for employing context to learn word meanings. Ultimately, Kuhn and Stahl (1998) concluded that incidental word learning occurred as a result of increased practice, rather than due to any particular method: “Given the frequent recommendations that children be taught the use of context clues, the paucity of research evidence is disappointing” (p. 129).
In their meta-analysis of 21 instructional methods designed to increase students’ deliberate use of context to arrive at word meanings, Fukkink and de Glopper (1998) argued that, because the number of words a student needs to learn each year is very high (Nagy et al., 1985), even small increases in word learning could make significant differences for students. Additionally, “regardless of any impact on incidental word learning, students need strategies for coping with unfamiliar words encountered while reading” (Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998, p. 451). Their review considered five types of instruction: recognition and use of context clues; increased attention to context through cloze tests; development of general strategies; assistance with conceptualizing definitions; and practice-only. The results demonstrated that “deliberately deriving word meaning from context is amenable to instruction and the effect of even relatively short instruction is rewarding” (Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998, p. 462). The authors admitted that the outcome was surprising, because of the tendency of contemporary researchers’ extreme caution at approaching the question of the effectiveness of instruction in deriving meaning from context. Ultimately, they concluded that incidental word learning occurred incrementally over long periods, and that it was reasonable to expect that researchers should plan for long-term instruction prior to witnessing any “significant transfer effect from intentional word learning to incidental word learning” (Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998, p. 465). And thus, at the end of the century, questions about effective instructional methods continued to ring, while various members of the literacy research community proposed solutions.
Graves (1986; 1987) reviewed research related to learning and teaching vocabulary up to the mid 1980s. The review was oriented around three basic questions: What do students already know? What do students need to learn? What can be taught? Although researchers had proposed answers to these and other fundamental questions, Graves (1986) explained that there were still some questions to which researchers had few answers, and others for which the answers were still too speculative. Graves (1986) examined extant research related to vocabulary size, effects of vocabulary on comprehension, methods of teaching individual words, and “generative vocabulary instruction” (p. 49), which included research on instruction dealing with context clues and morphological analysis. After an in-depth examination of studies across the century (many of which are included in this paper), Graves (1986) reached several conclusions, the first of which was that “more needs to be learned about year-by-year growth in students’ vocabularies, about the depth of students’ word knowledge, and about the vocabularies of less able and less advantaged students” (p. 79). Graves’ (1986) second conclusion was that, while a variety of instructional methods had been tested, different methods made varying demands on teachers’ and students’ time were not likely to produce the same results across populations. He argued that researchers needed to consider “just what various methods accomplish and how they fit into the curriculum” (Graves, 1986, p. 79). Students’ abilities to use contextual and morphological clues to access word meaning were still in question when Graves (1986) conducted his review. More information was needed about how and when students drew upon those skills, and how better to teach those forms of analysis. In conclusion, Graves (1986) argued that there were two factors contributing which had prevented vocabulary research from influencing instruction across the century: the lack (with some notable exceptions, all of whom have already been mentioned in this paper) of a large group of researchers exploring long-term research; and the lack of a “coherent, fully articulated, long-term plan for vocabulary instruction” (Graves, 1986, p. 80).
Beck, McKeown, and Omanson (1987) described a vocabulary program, which replicated earlier research (Beck et al., 1982), and had at its heart the instructional goal of producing rich and flexible word knowledge. A key feature of their program was rich instruction, which: invited students to move beyond associating words with definitions; provided opportunities for maximum amounts of processing; and encouraged students to “manipulate words in varied and rich ways, for example, by describing how they relate to other words and to their own familiar experiences” (Beck et al., 1987, p. 149). Another feature of this program was that it provided multiple encounters with words over time. The final feature was that the program promoted creative word use (and thus vocabulary learning) outside of the classroom through an activity called Word Wizard, which rewarded students for finding examples of taught words outside the classroom or using those words in other settings. Throughout the program, teachers provided modeling for activities, and students were continually asked to make their understanding and thinking about words and vocabulary explicit.
Answering the question about what words are appropriate to include in direct instruction, Beck et al. (1987) introduced the three-tiered concept of vocabulary. The first tier encompasses basic words such as mother, go, and red, none of which would need to be included in instruction due to widespread familiarity. Another set of words that were deemed inappropriate for inclusion in general vocabulary instruction were the third-tier words, which included highly specialized words such as nebula, tidal pool, and divertimento. Words that occurred with high-frequency in the vocabulary of mature language users, and those deemed of general utility, such as unique, convenient, and procrastinate, belonged to the second tier, and Beck et al. (1987) suggested that instructional efforts be directed at teaching these words. They also emphasized the importance of gaining and raising students’ interest in words, which can further enrich in-class learning environments, as well as entice children to infuse their home environments with their enthusiasm for words. In conclusion, Beck et al. (1987) argued that while extant research had provided useful information about approaches to vocabulary instruction, no simple formula existed which could be applied across all settings. Rather, “the creation of effective vocabulary instruction calls for a careful crafting of experiences in consideration of specific learning goals, the words being taught, and the characteristics of the learners” (Beck et al., 1987, p. 162).
Herman and Dole (1988) reached a similar conclusion that the dilemma of crafting and delivering effective vocabulary instruction could not be addressed with simple solutions. In their overview of research-based approaches to vocabulary instruction, Herman and Dole (1988) concluded that more research was needed to determine effective methods for “teaching students to become independent word learners and efficient ways of helping students develop thorough understandings of important words and concepts” (Herman & Dole, 1988, p. 42). This desire for encouraging students to become independent word learners points to a larger question about vocabulary instruction about what researchers mean when they discussed students’ word knowledge.
Beck and McKeown (1991) addressed this question, and said that clarifying what it means to know a word is a fundamental issue underlying all vocabulary research. How one defines word knowledge reveals often un-examined assumptions. It is especially important to explore and understand the beliefs about word knowledge upon which the century’s vocabulary research was based. I examine some of these underlying assumptions about word knowledge in the next section.
What does it mean to know a word? Examining underlying assumptions about word knowledge
Ultimately, what we know about vocabulary growth depends largely on the questions we ask, which in turn reflect our often unexamined taken-for-granted beliefs about the nature of vocabulary knowledge itself. Cronbach (1942) was one of the first researchers to raise this issue, and although he is cited by some vocabulary researchers (c.f. Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002), his message seems to have been muted as we moved through the century.
Cronbach (1942) faulted previous researchers for using single or simple measures to determine the presence or absence of word knowledge, because of the inherent limitations of measuring knowledge in all-or-nothing terms. Rather, Cronbach (1942; 1943) argued in favor of exploring and assessing degrees of word knowledge in order to better capture a fuller and richer understanding of what a learner knows about words. He argued that more sophisticated tests were needed to accurately assess students’ vocabularies: “Testing should determine the degree to which [a student’s] understanding is complete rather than to say that [the student] ‘knows’ or ‘does not know’ the word” (Cronbach, 1943). To enable more accurate assessment, Cronbach (1942) proposed five degrees of word knowledge: generalization—the ability to provide a definition of a word; application—the recognition of the appropriateness of particular words in differing situations; breadth of meaning—the understanding that words may have multiple meanings; precision of meaning—the ability to recognize that meanings are contextual; and availability—being able to use a word, both orally and in writing. Cronbach’s (1942) aim was to provide teachers with a diagnostic measure which would aid them in providing differentiated instruction, based on students’ strengths and weaknesses. Such instruction might prevent a situation in which a student could provide a definition of a word that did not correspond to a deep understanding or ability to use the word in speech or writing.
In a related article, Cronbach (1943) aimed to develop a measure which would assess a student’s ability to understand and apply new vocabulary in new situations, and transfer that knowledge across diverse settings. To that end, Cronbach (1943) proposed a multiple-item true-false test, in which the target word is followed by a series of words which the student marks true if that concept applies to the target word, or false if the concept does not apply to the target. For example, under the target word element, the student would see: brass, iron, water, sulfur, fire, and oxygen. For each choice, the student would mark true or false, and thus reveal the degree to which s/he had ownership over the target word. “As a diagnostic test, the multiple-item form is superior to the customary form in which only one response per word is obtained, since, when one obtains five or more responses, the student’s knowledge is more reliably measured” (Cronbach, 1943, p. 532). Cronbach (1943) tested his instrument with 209 high school students, and reported that the results were suggestive. He concluded:
It appears important in many situations to determine how precisely a student understands a word rather than whether he can pass a single-item test on the word. In other cases, one may wish to analyze objectively just what meaning a word has for a student, without necessarily implying that one meaning is correct. (Cronbach, 1943, p. 534).
Other researchers addressed the question of what it means to know a word both indirectly and directly, reflecting the understanding that research devoted to increasing the size of students’ vocabulary “assumes that enlargement of vocabulary is in itself a virtue, without questioning the dimensions of the concepts with which words are associated” (Serra, 1953, p. 277). Bear and Odbert (1941) devised a scale on which to measure degrees of familiarity with words, which ranged from “readily recognizable as old acquaintances” to “know but cannot quite place” to “complete strangers” (p. 754). The authors conducted a study of 225 first-year college students to discover whether participants were aware their own word knowledge, using measures of vocabulary knowledge, reading, as well as a psychological instrument. They concluded that “the average student’s insight into the extent of his word knowledge is faulty” (p. 759). Furthermore, the students who appeared to be most in need of vocabulary growth were often those who had the least amount of insight into the limitations of their own vocabulary knowledge.
Feifel and Lorge (1950) attempted to clarify existing knowledge about stages of word meaning development with their examination of responses provided by 900 children, ages six through fourteen. Echoing Cronbach (1942; 1943), Feifel and Lorge (1950) pointed out that many vocabulary tests failed to distinguish degrees of understanding. Drawing on research from the previous decade, Feifel and Lorge (1950) grounded their study on the assumption that the character of children’s definitions developed as the children aged. Furthermore, they argued that “the character and quality of the word definition given by the individual permitted insight into his thought processes” (Feifel & Lorge, 1950, p. 3). The authors administered a standardized vocabulary measure and classified participant responses according to Feifel’s (1949) previous study of how people respond to vocabulary questions on a standardized measure. The five categories of student responses were: synonym, description, explanation, demonstration, or error. Feifel and Lorge (1950) reported significant differences between younger and older children’s responses: older children provided explanation and synonym-types of definitions, where as younger children tended to provide descriptive, and demonstration-type responses. The younger children also appeared to perceive words more concretely, and were less likely to generalize.
Building on Feifel and Lorge’s (1950) work, Kruglov (1953) used the same response categories with a test of word recognition, which differed from the test of vocabulary recall used by Feifel and Lorge (1950). Kruglov (1953) argued that traditional vocabulary research had focused on the quantity of words a person could define “while the dimension of the quality of these word definitions has largely been ignored” (p. 229), therefore she constructed a multiple-choice vocabulary test, which corresponded to Feifel and Lorge’s (1950). The instrument was administered to four classrooms (one each at grades 3, 5, 7, 8; total population was 134) to test the hypothesis that the percentage of synonym and explanation-type responses would increase with age. Kruglov (1953) reported an increase in synonym-responses across the ages, but no significant difference for explanation-type responses. She concluded that “recognition vocabularies, just as recall vocabularies, differ in quality as well as in range from one age or grade level to the next” (Kruglov, 1953, p. 241). Even though Feifel and Lorge (1950) and Kruglov (1953) set out to explore the qualitative dimensions of word knowledge, their use of recall and recognition measures was problematic. Being able to complete recall or word recognition task does not necessarily indicate a firm grasp on, and ability to use, an underlying concept: “The ability to recognize a word does not ensure complete understanding” (Seegers, 1946, p. 61).
Serra’s (1953) review of research underscored the importance of expanding students’ breadth and precision of word meanings (T. L. Harris, 1969). Serra (1953) reviewed more than thirty studies from the previous three decades, and concluded that concept development was more successful when instruction invited, and honored, the use of students’ experiential knowledge; when teachers engaged in word study to broaden vocabulary and inform word meaning; and when students engaged with words’ multiple meanings (Serra, 1953, pp. 283-284). The importance of establishing rich and appropriate labels (words) for underlying concepts and experiences was (and continues to be) vital, because
Words, after all, are the deposit of experience—the result of what we have done or are thinking. They are the bearers of meaning—the symbols which represent experience. . . Words represent the concepts, the distillate of previous experience. (Dale, 1956, p. 114).
Measuring word knowledge with fixed categories (such as present or absent, known or unknown) ignores the fact that “The essence of language is fluidity, not rigidity” (Dale, 1956, p. 123). Eichholz and Barbe (1961) designed, and then tested, an approach to vocabulary instruction grounded in the belief that “any word in an individual’s vocabulary may be placed at some stage along a continuum whose extreme poles are known and unknown but which has intermediate stages of knowing” (p. 2, emphasis in original). The intermediate stages included: having heard or seen a word, with little effect; a word which motivated the reader to take some kind of action; a word which moved the reader across that threshold of action to engagement (action was characterized as using the dictionary, speaking to someone, or generally adopting an interested stance); a word which is was available for use, but whose multiple meanings were not fully understood by the reader; and finally a word that had been embodied by the reader, who was able to use it at will and with flexibility (Eichholz & Barbe, 1961, p. 2). In selecting words to include in the study, Eichholz and Barbe (1961) avoided words that students had not encountered previously. They believed that vocabulary growth, especially developing multiple-meanings for words, would come from experience and exposure.
It would be possible, but practically foolish, to teach words they had never even seen before. In order for vocabulary training to be at all valuable and permanent, there must be an opportunity for the individual to use the words . . . learned. (p. 3).
Eichholz and Barbe’s (1961) study involved 105 seventh graders (54 in the experimental group and 51 in the control group). Students in the experimental group received informal lectures, delivered once a week for eight weeks by the experimenters on word history, dictionary use, and other related topics. The goal of these talks was to raise students’ interest in words in general. The experimental class also completed two practice tests as homework, using a self-checking device created by the study authors. The students in the control group neither heard the informal lectures on word histories, nor did they complete practice tests. Results of the final multiple-choice test at the conclusion of the study revealed that the number of encounters a student had with a word influenced retention. The authors attributed the gain to practice, which the experimental group received both through their practice tests, and the use of the self-checking device. Therefore, the authors recommended that teachers adopt this method of instruction, because it did not take too much time away from teaching other content.
Although the researchers spent a considerable amount of their article describing the degrees of word knowledge, they used an instrument to determine retention which did not appear to explore those degrees. Ultimately, Eichholz and Barbe (1961) did not actually report findings related to degrees of knowledge, which was very unfortunate, because “the important fact about a child’s vocabulary may be, not the number of words [she or] he recognizes superficially, but the quality of [her or] his associations with different words” (Russell & Saadeh, 1962, p. 170).
To research the nature of children’s vocabulary, Russell and Saadeh (1962) conducted a study with 257 students in the 3rd, 6th, and 9th grades to determine whether and when a student would choose functional, abstract, or concrete definitions on a multiple-choice vocabulary test. For example, the target word count was followed by four possible responses, representing the three categories and a wrong response. The functional definition of count provided was “to find the number of things in a group”; the concrete definition was “to find how many pennies are in your pocket”; the abstract definition was “to say numbers in order—upward or downward”; and the incorrect response was “to tell numbers on after the other” (Russell & Saadeh, 1962, p. 171). The results indicated that 3rd grade students preferred concrete and functional responses. Similarly, the number of functional and abstract choices increased with age. The author concluded that children’s vocabulary should be measured for breadth and depth of meaning, as well as by the types of definitions that children choose.
Despite the studies reviewed above, which explored “the depth and complexity of vocabulary issues” (Beck & McKeown, 1991, p. 790), most research in vocabulary has been, and continues to be, based upon a view of word knowledge as receptive knowledge. Being able to recognize this view, and understandings its implications for research is an extremely important task to which I now turn.
Implications for current and future research
Looking back at the research I’ve reviewed in this paper, I am struck by two things. First, I see a need to re-examine how researchers have defined what it means to know a word, and the implications those definitions carry for interpreting the research. Second, I am left wondering about the overall purpose of vocabulary research (and instruction).
What does it mean to know a word? Researchers from across the century clearly understood the importance of gaining a more nuanced understanding of what it means to know a word. Beck and McKeown (1991) were neither the first nor the last to declare that “knowing a word is not an all-or-nothing proposition” (p. 791). In the early part of the century, Cronbach (1942; 1943) cautioned against testing for simple (single) word meanings, because such tests contribute little useful information. Dale (1956) argued against thinking of vocabulary knowledge as a process of accumulating “bricks,” because such an orientation denied the essential flexibility and unfixedness of language. Herman et al. (1987) warned that “if researchers are unaware of the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition and fail to devise tests that are sensitive to partial gains in word knowledge, they may conclude erroneously that incidental acquisition of vocabulary knowledge has not occurred” (p. 264).
Despite these cautions, much of the vocabulary research conducted in the second half of the 20th century employed measures that reflected a dichotomous view of knowledge: the presence or absence of word knowledge. As such, these measures may have failed to capture the degrees of knowledge that so many researchers clearly valued. “If the goal is for students to fully understand and use words, then evaluations based on simple synonym matching or multiple-choice definitions will not tell us if that goal has been reached” (Beck et al., 2002, p. 11). While this fact does not mean we should dismiss all vocabulary research that measures vocabulary knowledge in binary terms, it does complicate my reading of the research. I’m challenged by the question of what we really know about vocabulary knowledge (and if it is even possible to quantify that knowledge). As I look forward to my own research, the goal of exploring the degrees and dimensions of student knowledge calls me, because “information needed by researchers and educators goes well beyond what can be learned from multiple-choice tests” (Beck & McKeown, 1991, p. 796). I believe that the field of vocabulary research will be richer and better able to describe what students know if we consider their knowledge about words as being located along a continuum.
What’s the purpose of encouraging vocabulary growth? Vocabulary growth serves many purposes. One common goal of researchers across the century has been to improve students’ reading comprehension through vocabulary. For those researchers, gains in reading comprehension were the final goal. In fact, Herman and Dole (1988) argue that studies of instructional contextual approaches to vocabulary growth had as their aim improved comprehension, not vocabulary. In a recent review of vocabulary assessment in the 20th century, Pearson, Hiebert and Kamil (2007) argue vigorously for increased teaching of vocabulary and also for more study of its relationship to comprehension. As Pearson et al. (2007) explain, “the assessment of vocabulary as it pertains to reading comprehension has almost exclusively emphasized the receptive dimension of vocabulary” (p. 284). Receptive vocabulary knowledge is generally classified as that which is activated in reading and listening; to be successful, a reader or listener must know (or at least have passing familiarity) with words she encounters. On the other hand, expressive vocabulary knowledge relates to one’s ability to be productive with language. Comprehension research has tended to focus on receptive knowledge (Pearson et al., 2007).
I have no argument with using vocabulary instruction as a vehicle for improving reading comprehension, and I do not intend to dismiss decades of research dedicated to exploring the effects of vocabulary instruction on comprehension. I do, however, have a question about what conditions need to be in place, and the kinds of research we need to conduct, in order to explore, and ultimately, promote expressive vocabulary knowledge. I am intrigued and challenged by need to create opportunities in which researchers (and teachers) can investigate a student’s “ability to distinguish a correct from an almost correct meaning, in order to know the range of situations in which [she or] he can use the term without error” (Cronbach, 1942, p. 208). I, too, want to help students to move students beyond receptive knowledge to expressive knowledge, wherein they have embodied their understanding and can use it productively to communicate, both in school and in life.
If you would like a copy of the References, please post a comment below.
Even though APA forbids them, I love footnotes. Here are mine:  According to J.R. Jenkins, Stein, and Wysocki (1984), learning occurs without direct instruction, whereas deriving word meanings results from explicit directions to consider unfamiliar words during reading.  The rule in question was that when students encountered an word unfamiliar word, they should attempt to discern its meaning from context.  The tests were classified as difficult, because all four of the distractor responses were semantically related, or easy, because only two of the potential responses were related.  Even though this study does not actually test a particular instructional method, the model of morphological analysis proposed by White et al. (1989) is interesting because it resembles the process recommended by (D. R. Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2004, 2008) in which students learn to decompose affixed words, seek out their meaning-bearing stems, and recompose words in meaningful ways.  This scale resembles Dale’s (1965) four-stage scale for measuring word familiarity and knowledge: never saw it before; heard, but doesn’t know; recognizes within context; and knows it well.  A functional definition includes the function of the word, while an abstract definition lacks reference to a specific function.  Calfee and Drum (1986) expanded Cronbach’s (1942; 1943) work by adding ease of access and appreciation of wordplay, metaphor, and analogy.
I had the distinct pleasure of chairing the last of my graduate students’ Oral Exam presentations for the semester on Tuesday. Of the six students who completed their programs this semester, three focused on early literacy (which I’ll admit is more-and-more interesting to me, thanks to my students!). In addition to being incredibly pleased with their poise and expertise, I was inspired by their passion.
The student who finished yesterday presented her answer to a question I posed here about how to improve education in New Mexico. In short, her answer was: early childhood intervention. In addition to drawing our attention to the correlations between socioeconomic status and school-achievement, the student captured our attention with Dr. Estelle Farrar’s ”Ready Child Equation.” Have you seen it? Here it is:
Simple. Profound. Vital.
New Mexico’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards in K-2 this fall creates a perfect opportunity to talk about what it will take to promote readiness for school success. We need all stakeholders to participate in this conversation. Who’s ready to talk?
Also, did you know that Dolly Parton founded a group that now GIVES books to almost 700,000 children every month? Local communities can become affiliates and send high quality, age-appropriate books directly to children’s homes.
In case you’re wondering, 70% of all New Mexico students meet the “eligibility” requirements for participation. There are 22 affiliate/sites currently operating in the north-western part of the state. If you know of any organizations looking for community service projects, please send them my way.
I just watched the interview with Robert Reich on The Daily Show about his new eBook, and was inspired by Reich’s clarity and conviction that individuals can make change. Then I read the following headline: Call to States: Revolutionize Teacher and Principal Preparation and then this quote from Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers:
“If we are honest with ourselves, we know we are not ready to deliver against this promise,” he told teams from 27 states. “The vast majority of teachers don’t have the skill set” needed to teach to the new expectations. They need support to improve both their pedagogical skills and their content knowledge, he said.
If we (and it turns out that “we” doesn’t just pertain to New Mexico) aren’t ready to make good on the promise that is the national standards, why are we jumping off that cliff? Cue inspiration fizzle here.
Teachers don’t have the skills sets? That’s the reason the Common Core Standards Initiative can’t deliver on its mythical promise? Seriously? This is a forest-for-the-trees argument, and continues to provide “evidence” to the hegemonic narrative that teachers are to blame for, well, everything. Fast forward two years from now, when asked to explain why the standards didn’t deliver on their promise. I guarantee you that we won’t hear anything about a) the lack of a well thought-out approach; b) the lack of an assessment plan; c) the lack of resources devoted to promoting change; or d) the fact that standards don’t eradicate poverty.
I don’t disagree that teachers need support to change. Don’t we all? What I want to know is where is the support for the change?
In New Mexico, so far, it has come in the form of documents empty of research (at least in the area of vocabulary–more on that in my next post) with oddly phrased sentences about what students and teachers will do without any mention of context or differentiation or instruction or assessment or… anything!
If indeed, the goal of the Common Core State Standards initiative is to
force promote a different approach to teaching and learning, then we are going to need a whole lot more than what’s being currently offered. Not because teachers can’t figure it out on their own (they can), but because there are a whole set of invisible criteria lurking behind this seemingly well-intentioned “reform” of education.
I’ve looked at the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, and so far have not noticed qualitative differences between them and the current standards used in New Mexico. (Well, except for the typos, the glaring error my students noticed that 3rd graders should be reading grade 2-3 books by the end of 3rd grade, and the prescriptive approach to writing as a set of rules to master rather than as evidence of productive knowledge, but I digress.) How exactly are these new expectations?
For the sake of argument, let’s accept that somehow by publishing a set of standards on the web, the CCSS will magically cause a “different approach” to education to appear. (grumble grumble grumble). Then isn’t it incumbent upon policymakers to have already been engaged in on-going, constructive, and collaborative conversations with educators, administrators, parents, and students about the differences? Handing a person a binder with a set of standards won’t change anything. Engaging in conversation about how to identify students’ needs and plan instruction grounded in formative and valid assessment might change things. Where are those conversations? Judging by Mr. Wilhoit’s comment above, the narrative is already well on its way to fossilization (read: blame teachers).
The trouble is that I don’t think the Common Core is really about facilitating learning or educational progress. If you read statements from representatives of the US Department of Education, you’ll notice a lot of talk about entrepreneurship and taking educational products “to scale.” I believe, as Anthony Cody wrote yesterday, that this process is about providing business opportunities for publishers and testing companies (who, incidentally, are usually one-and-the-same).
Which brings me to question exactly what kind of “skill set” current and future teachers need. I’ve written it before, and will write it again: People should not go into teaching simply because they like kids. We need passionate, brilliant, dedicated, and resilient people to become teachers because they want to participate in, and create opportunities for, the most amazing process humans undertake: learning. We need teachers who can think creatively and disruptively; who resist top-down mandates from people who know little-to-nothing about the realities of children’s lives; who are willing to push back against professional consultants who come bearing
one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching anything other than questions and a willingness to listen; who know the difference between transmitting content and facilitating learning.
Those are the skills teachers and principals need. Where’s the money to provide that kind of professional development? Shall I hold my breath?
When I started writing the previous post, I thought it was going to be about assessment, and it was, but only indirectly. Clearly, I had other thoughts I need to express. This post will be about assessment which, I’ve come to believe, is the most important part of education we never talk about. Sure, we hear a lot about high-stakes testing and so-called value-added models, but those are just two elements in a much wider topic. The problem, I believe, is related to whose voices dominate the conversation.
Despite their apparent enthusiasm for using (questionable) test scores to make all sorts of decisions, the self-titled “education reformers” don’t seem to know much about assessment (never mind validity–more on that in a bit). People with actual experience in education (and by that, I do not mean that they attended school at some point in their lives!), on the other hand, have known for while now that valid assessment of student learning is perhaps the most important part of curricular design.
Therefore, I offer this brief assessment primer (just in case they’re interested).
Before making any curricular decisions, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I want students to master?
- How will I measure students’ (growth toward) mastery?
- What sorts of things do students need to do in order to achieve mastery?
- How will I know if students are moving toward mastery?
- What do I need to do (re-teach, provide extra scaffolding…) to assist students in their pursuit of mastery?
Notice question #2?
Key terms related to assessment so-called reformers need to understand:
- Validity indicates whether the assessment actually measures what it purports to measure. Here’s an example: if we want to know whether a child has gained ownership over a word, a multiple-choice test can’t tell us that. All the test tells us is which answer she bubbled. Here’s another example: students who live near the zoo chose “elephant” in response to a question about which animal wakes them up in the morning. As a measure of what students know, that question is invalid. Children from urban (or suburban) areas may never have seen a rooster, which–of course!–was the “correct” answer to that question. For more on sound principles for assessment, click here.
- Multiple measures means that we assess draw from many types of evidence to assess student performance to avoid making long-term instructional decisions without getting a full picture of what a student knows and can do. To find out about how multiple measures systems are used successfully at home and abroad, click here.
- Formative assessment measures student progress during learning; includes a focus on daily practice as a means to achieving mastery on a final product; includes timely and useful feedback; allows teacher to adjust instructional plan for tomorrow; and focuses on student growth. This is also known as assessment for learning, because it promotes learning.
Of course, there is much, much more to know about assessment, but I’ve found that scaffolding learning where no schema exists (which appears to be the case with many people who view themselves as experts on education), it’s important to take small steps, and allow time for thought. I only wish that the folks driving the Common Core bus here in New Mexico would stop and consider the long-term implications of implementing a set of standards without (valid) assessment instruments. Yesterday, I heard someone (who claims decades of experience) propose that we teach our students strategies they can use to implement the CC, with nary a mention of assessment at all. ((sigh)) A girl can dream.
I’ve been talking about New Mexico’s implementation of the Common Core with lots of folks recently, and have heard some stories that stun even me into (momentary) silence.
One was about a Texas-based consultant brought in to provide professional development related to the CC. Sounds reasonable (although there are plenty of experts on education within the state) except when you consider this fact: Texas isn’t implementing the Common Core Standards. Hmmm. Why on earth would someone hire a consultant to talk about something that she’s not actually doing? Knowing about standards is NOT the same thing as having experience implementing them. What’s that saying about how to get ahead in business? It’s not what you know but who you know… So out-of-state experts rank higher than people with experience identifying and meeting the educational needs of New Mexico’s students. I don’t know why I’m so surprised.
The other story does not surprise me, but makes me mad enough to scream. Apparently, one of the reasons New Mexico rushed to embrace national standards was to qualify for a coveted NCLB waiver from the US Department of Education (and that, in that rush, forgot to consider exactly how we might implement those standards). That was after New Mexico was the only state which was denied a waiver, which allows flexibility in relation to the requirements of NCLB. Here’s how the USDOE describes their invitation to states:
The U.S. Department of Education is inviting each State educational agency (SEA) to request flexibility on behalf of itself, its local educational agencies, and schools, in order to better focus on improving student learning and increasing the quality of instruction. This voluntary opportunity will provide educators and State and local leaders with flexibility regarding specific requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) in exchange for rigorous and comprehensive State-developed plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction.
Providing flexibility to schools, districts, and states to support efforts to identify and address students’ needs? How could that not be a good thing? (HINT: look at that paragraph above again and pay particular attention the sentence which describes the
deal-with-the-devil “exchange” required of states granted a waiver.) According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the waiver places New Mexico among the leaders of education reform.
“Today, New Mexico joins the ranks of states leading the charge on education reform by protecting children, raising standards and holding themselves accountable,” Duncan said. “As New Mexico implements these reforms, it is important that all stakeholders are at the table and their voices are heard. We encourage the governor and her team to work closely and in a bipartisan manner with the legislature, and to fully include educators, community, and tribal leaders and parents in the process of advancing these reforms. … New Mexico will move to an accountability system that “recognizes and rewards high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains, while targeting rigorous and comprehensive interventions for the lowest-performing schools,” the Department of Education said.
Last night in class, our topic was reading comprehension (specifically, ways to support students’ comprehension of content-area texts). One of the strategies we discussed was creating a found poem from an informational text. In order to create a found poem, students need to have a deep understanding of the text in question, be able to select meaningful words and phrases that convey the essence of the text, and create something new. (These steps, by the way, move students progressively UP Bloom’s Taxonomy, from understanding to creating.) If I were going to write a found poem based on the quotes above, here are the words I’d list as most meaningful (to the authors of the text, not necessarily to me!):
- improving student learning
- educational outcomes
- quality of instruction
- protecting children
- significant gains
What found poem would you write with that list? What words (and therefore concepts) are missing from this list?
Here are a few I would add (were I invited into the conversation about how best to identify and meet the needs of New Mexico’s students, which I think is unlikely; see “not what you know…” above):
- authentic assessment
- socioeconomic status
- formative assessment
- culturally responsive instruction
- assessment-based instructional decision-making
- on-going, formative assessment
- culturally and linguistically relevant materials
- validity of assessment
Once again, I find myself disheartened at the absolute lack of foresight and complete abdication of responsibility. In order to secure a waiver from the federal government, education policymakers in New Mexico agreed to
sacrifice student learning and long-term academic success implement national standards. Rather than using widely accepted (and time-tested) principles of curriculum design, New Mexico has put the proverbial cart before the horse. It’s as sure a way to guarantee failure as any I can imagine. Why is this regressive approach to “reform” so bad? Because despite the fact that, during the most recent Legislative session, the New Mexico Legislature rejected Governor Martinez’ proposal to tie teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, teachers’ evaluations will be tied to students’ test scores beginning in 2013 (according to today’s Albuquerque Journal).
Again, I ask: who will benefit from New Mexico’s headlong plunge into an approach to so-called reform which is almost guaranteed to fail?
By the way: I’m not just sitting back and criticizing. I’ve begun a new venture dedicated to supporting teachers as they implement the Common Core Standards in meaningful and effective ways to model and scaffold authentic student learning. It’s a work in progress, but you can find more information about it here.
Is it just me, or does the implementation of the Common Core standards nationwide seem like a great big trap for teachers and public education?
How could we possibly be catapulting from the age of scripted, teacher-proofed materials in which teachers’ expertise was characterized (by some) as irrelevant to a situation in which a set of common standards are provided to teachers who–magically–will embrace a “different approach to instruction,” which–at least from what I’m reading–doesn’t include any curriculum scaffolds, instructional materials, or authentic assessment. Here’s a paragraph to ponder:
“The standards describe what students must learn and in which grade spans learning must take place, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach or what instructional materials they will use. Our superintendents, principals and teachers will decide how best to help students achieve the standards. …By the 2012-2013 school year New Mexico, K-3 teachers will be responsible for teaching the new standards, and by the 2013-2014 school year, all New Mexico teachers will be teaching the new standards. NMPED as well as your districts are creating documents and plans to guide educators in making decisions about how to implement the standards” (http://newmexicocommoncore.org/pages/view/43/what-will-i-be-teaching/3/).
So let me see if I have this right.
For the past half-decade or more, teachers who worked in schools that did not make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) were often required (by site administrators and /or district officials) to standardize their instruction (via commercial publishers’ pacing guides) to ensure that all students in the same grade would hear the same
script instruction at the same time. A striking characteristic of this very bleak period of American education is that teachers are regularly vilified by so-called education reformers (who also suggest that firing entire faculties would somehow change schools in a positive way), and few in the public sphere question the word of the well-funded. These teachers, whose professionalism the “reformers” publicly question, are now going to be free to decide how to best meet their students’ needs? Seriously?
I’m not a conspiracy theorist in general, but it strikes me as truly odd that the curricular pendulum has swung this far, this fast.
It’s not that I don’t believe that there are many, many excellent teachers out there, who are already helping their students succeed. I know those teachers. It’s not that I don’t believe that local school officials aren’t dedicated to ensuring that all students have access to a relevant and equitable education. I know those folks, too. My real concern is that despite the expertise, passion, and dedication at local levels, implementing national standards without first laying the groundwork poses a serious threat to public education. Implementing standards before measuring validity (or, providing a “scientifically-based” rationale) goes against every principle of good teaching.
Let me be clear here: I do not oppose having high expectations for students. (Ask my own students; they’ll tell you how demanding I am.) I do not oppose curriculum planning that provides a framework for developmentally-sequenced objectives. I do not even oppose state standards (although I have concerns about standardized approaches to education). I do, however, oppose over-simplified “solutions” to complex issues. And I really, really oppose policymakers who make promises they can’t possibly keep, and don’t take responsibility for failure.
Telling parents (and students) that the implementation of a set of national standards will change education is specious at best. Having common standards is not the same thing as ensuring that every teacher is an expert with theoretical, pedagogical, and practice-oriented knowledge AND the relationship skills required to inspire learning. Having common standards will do nothing to alleviate the fact that millions of students (22%, in fact) in the US live in crushing poverty, and that socioeconomic status is the most reliable predictor for future academic success. Having common standards without providing on-going professional development in which teachers, administrators, parents, and students engage critically in planning how to meet expectations for grade-level learning will lead nowhere (or worse).
So why are we even on this journey without a map or waypoints at which we can stop to reflect on where we are, where we are headed, and make informed decisions about how best to complete the trip?
Which leads me to another question: who will benefit if the implementation of national standards fails miserably (and by that, I mean when scores on the new computerized assessments don’t skyrocket)? For-profit educational “experts” pushing scripted, teacher-proofed materials (again)? For-profit charter schools? Publishers with quick-fixes?
More importantly, who will not benefit from this (almost) national experiment?
Can school districts really promise parents that students won’t suffer (which seems like a pretty low bar to set, if you ask me) if they don’t provide on-going, systematic, and collaborative professional development for teachers, instructional coaches, and paraprofessionals to ensure that the people closest to the students understand how to design curriculum to meet individual students’ needs and keep everyone moving forward?
Is it realistic to expect teachers–many of whom work second or third jobs to pay their bills–to adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; AND successfully move students toward career- or college-readiness without providing them the time and resources?
I explained all of this to a friend, who said, “I don’t know a lot about education policy, but that seems really stupid.” Exactly.
I’m not a pessimist by nature, but I fear that we all will–at least those of us without financial stakes in the game–suffer unless states, districts, schools, parent-organizations, university faculty, community organizations, and other interested stakeholders get involved (right now!) in making sure that the implementation of the Common Core Standards does not fail because we linked our future to promises that can’t be kept.
I decided to read the implementation plan published by the state department of education, and make sure I hadn’t mischaracterized the lack of teacher development in advance of the roll-out. Also, I wanted to see what specific suggestions the planners included, in case I was too hasty in my judgments. Here’s a description a major “instructional shift” the CCSS will inspire:
“Through reading, discussing, and writing about appropriately complex texts at each grade level, students build the general academic vocabulary they will need to access a wide range of complex texts in college and careers. Students gather as much as they can about the meaning of these words from the context of how the words are being used in the text. Teachers offer support as needed when students are not able to figure out word meanings from the text alone and for students who are still developing high frequency vocabulary.”
Hmmm. I thought the standards were research-based. The authors of this implementation guide must have read different research than I have on what it takes to develop academic vocabulary. Relying on context and wide reading alone is not enough (or even remotely enough) to develop students’ ownership of academic vocabulary. The research is pretty darn clear on what effective vocabulary instruction actually looks like, and the paragraph above doesn’t match.
It reads like a headline from The Onion (“NYC Department of Education wants to ban 50 forbidden words from state tests“), but it’s not. According to news reports, in New York, there are some words that are so powerful that students should be shielded from them in testing situations. On a day when I had planned to discuss censorship & challenges to literature with my students, the article seemed particularly fortuitous.
What are these dangerous words, you ask? Here they are:
Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological); Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs; Birthday celebrations (and birthdays); Bodily functions; Cancer (and other diseases); Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes); Celebrities; Children dealing with serious issues; Cigarettes (and other smoking paraphernalia); Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting); Crime; Death and disease; Divorce; Evolution; Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes; Gambling involving money; Halloween; Homelessness; Homes with swimming pools; Hunting; Junk food; In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge; Loss of employment; Nuclear weapons; Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling); Parapsychology; Politics; Pornography; Poverty; Rap Music; Religion; Religious holidays and festivals (including but not limited to Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan); Rock-and-Roll music; Running away; Sex; Slavery; Terrorism; Television and video games (excessive use); Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters); Vermin (rats and roaches); Violence; War and bloodshed; Weapons (guns, knives, etc.); Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.
Leaving aside the fact that the paragraph above includes topics, not specific words, the list deserves scrutiny. When we talked about them in class last night, we did–I’ll admit–laugh, because some of the concepts were downright ludicrous. Seriously, why would a test administered in K-12 schools would even include references to alcohol? One of my students suggested maybe it was a math word-problem: “If you have two shots and your friend has five beers…” Same with “gambling involving money”; does that mean reading passages about gambling that doesn’t involve money would be OK?
Then we turned our attention to the other topics. Some are clearly motivated by some constituents’ religious beliefs (and therefore we did not laugh): birthdays, occult, religious celebrations/holidays, witchcraft. Having just discussed the American Library Association’s explanation about past and current challenges to books, we weren’t surprised to see topics related to religious viewpoints or sex as potential “dangers.” (Although, as another student said: “Do these people not know what kids today are up to?!?”) We were surprised / stunned / stupefied about some of the others.
- Why do rap and rock-and-roll constitute potential danger, but not country music?
- Would students living in poverty be so upset by a reference to unemployment in a reading that they’d be unable to complete the test? Wouldn’t the fact that they LIVE IN POVERTY be the real potentially upsetting thing?
- If a student lives in a vermin-infested home, do the folks at the NYC DOE really think that reading a story with a rat in it (e.g. Charlotte’s Web) would upset that test-taker so much as to invalidate their measure?
- Conversely, if a student who lives in poverty reads a passage about a home with a swimming pool (where are they getting these hypothetical reading passages, anyway?!?), she will be so crushed by aspirational envy that she won’t be able to correctly bubble in her answer?
These are silly-seeming questions, until we step back and look at the wider context of education in the United States. If teachers’ salaries are tied to test scores, one might imagine they will spend more time focusing on helping their students prepare for the tests. That’s not what most teachers view as “best practice,” but what else do we expect them to do if their
lives livelihoods are on the line? If the tests are scrubbed of the topics listed above, then it seems reasonable to expect that instructional materials will also be sanitized, in order to more closely align instruction with assessment. Look at that list above again. What are those students going to be allowed to read to prepare for the tests? (Never mind read to learn, explore, think…) Using the list above as criteria, every text is potentially offensive or upsetting to someone. My students suggested an experiment: I chose a book at random from my book cart (it’s a class on teaching literacy through children’s & young adult literature, so I roll my cart to and from class each week), and started reading. Within the first few pages of Bill and Pete go down the Nile by Tomie dePaola, we had found several things that could be offensive or upsetting or problematic from someone’s point of view (e.g. non-Christian burial practices; representations of Egyptian characters–I’m sure someone somewhere might make a connection between the talking crocodile and a fear of an impending Muslim-takeover of the world…).
If we act on the rationale that we should remove words or topics from tests that might offend or upset students, we’re in trouble. As one of my students said, “I really want a puppy, and every time you mention your dog, it makes me sad.” What’s a teacher to do?
I’m not advocating that educators not be sensitive to students’ backgrounds. Not at all. Culturally-responsive pedagogy demands that we recognize and honor the lived experiences of all the students in the room, so that we can find more and more ways to create authentic and relevant learning opportunities. That includes–from my way of thinking–providing opportunities for critical engagement with difficult topics. (If not in school, where?) But if society (or in this case, the NYC DOE) bans
ideas words in order to protect children from topics that are potentially upsetting, what happens when they leave school each day? Children in this country live in poverty. Our students are have experiential knowledge of violence, disease, unemployment, and abuse (to name just a few). If schools don’t provide students with safe spaces to think critically about their lives, who will? How will they ever learn that they are not alone in their experiences? Why on earth would we want to do anything that further exacerbates the disconnect between school and students’ “real” lives?
Words are tools for identifying, thinking about, and discussing the underlying concepts they represent. Banning words won’t make those realities disappear. If we really want to protect children, we should work to eradicate poverty and homelessness and abuse. Impossible task? Not if we put our minds to it instead of taking the easy route of banning