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.
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.
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.
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.
“People without a voice are often people without a shaping role in the world” (Johnstone, 2002, p. 112).
Language shapes, and allows us to shape, who we are in the world. We use language to position ourselves, and to position others, in relationship to cultural expectations (Olsen, 2006). Language constitutes, and is constituted by, our interactions with other people and the world (Fairclough, 1995, 2001; Gee, 1996, 2005; Halliday, 1978; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004; Johnston, 2004; Thompson, 2004). Therefore, language plays a central role in social development, because it is the primary way culture is transmitted (Haliday, 1978).
Right about now, some readers are probably wondering where this post is going. Why the academic treatise on language and discourse? Well, because one of the things at stake in the current monologue about education is the language we use. Do I mean that the English language is under attack? No. I understand (and teach) that language is dynamic and that to try to fix (as in “fasten (something) securely in a particular place or position“) language in a particular context is a futile endeavor. Meanings shift, slip, and alter over time. That’s how languages work.
For many people, language just is. My experiences teaching hundreds of college students over the years has taught me that many people do not view themselves as agentive language users, because our educational system has taught reading and writing (in particular) as tasks to master. Our historical emphasis on creating educational environments dedicated to transmitting receptive knowledge (see “liking kids is not enough” for more on this topic) has created legions of people who think of themselves as users not creators of language. Therefore, language is something many people don’t consider: “the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’ to its users it tends to become” (Chandler, 2002, p. 3). Asking people to think about language is like asking a fish to see the water in which it swims (not a new, but very apt comparison). Taking this metalinguistic leap–step back from language to see language–isn’t for everyone (I believe people are capable, just perhaps not interested and/or willing), and it doesn’t occur to everyone to pay attention to how language shapes who we are and how we operate in the world. (Obviously, I’m not one of those people…)
Exposure to particular language usage over time renders it seemingly neutral and invisible (Kress, 2003). Often these habitual discursive practices convey a sense of permanence and as being beyond question (Kress, 2003). Chandler (2002) suggests that the very fact that some categories, ideas, and/or sign systems have been granted a priori status requires that we question them, their origins, and who benefits from their normative status. That’s what I’m trying to do in this blog.
I want people to realize (or remember) that language is never neutral. Power is embedded, and embodied, in all discursive transactions (Foucault, 1982). The way we use language provides insight into how we as speakers perceive ourselves (Rymes, 1995). Our choices reflect our capacity to draw from language-as-a-resource “for… making the representation that we wish or need to make” (Kress, 2003, p. 82). Attending to language use can reveal the ways in which our discursive choices reveal our perceptions of ourselves in relationship to others (Alvermann, Young, Green, & Wisenbaker, 1999).
What happens if we don’t pay attention to language? We limit our ability to participate fully in the conversations that matter to us.
For example, let’s consider our current national conversation about education. Gee (2005)–who likes to use capital letters to draw distinctions–defines a Conversation as an on-going largely metaphorical discussion within a group, culture, or society about issues that matter: “one big grand conversation” (p. 49). In the rest of this post, I’ll use the capital C when discussing big-picture conversations about education.
Recently, the Conversation about education (particularly “education reform”) has reached more and more Americans. While there are more voices –for better or worse–in the Conversation, the language we’re using (even the collocation of education and reform seems “natural”) remains largely unexamined by the general public. This taken-for-grantedness has serious implications.
Teachers have historically not been as vocal as other participants in the national Conversation about education, despite the expertise and authority they possess. Unlike other professions, teachers are often (some might argue systematically) excluded from shaping the policies by which they must live. Instead, policymakers turn to so-called experts without actual teaching experience (and for the record, owning a company that trains teachers is not teaching). Similarly, as the locus of control over education has shifted away from local classrooms, schools, and communities, teachers have had minimal say in defining what it means for them to be highly qualified or for students to be considered proficient. Without a say in how they’ll be judged, teachers become easy targets. (Just look at Wisconsin, where teachers’ unions are being blamed for budget deficits.)
A recurring theme in our national Conversation is that teachers are defenders of the status quo who want nothing more than to reap their generous salaries without having to be held accountable for test scores, I mean: students’ learning. (Don’t believe me? Watch this montage of opinion about teachers put together by The Daily Show.) Given the vitriolic tone of our Conversation (which Diane Ravitch actually calls a monologue), I think it’s time think about words. In particular, I think it’s important to think about seemingly neutral words like education, reform, and transformation.
Education is a noun formed by the affixation of -ion (which means action or condition) and the verb educate, which derives from the Latin verb educare. Briefly, the root -duct- means to carry (think: aqueduct, conduct, deduct). The prefix ex- means out of or away. In the case of the word educate, the prefix ex- was assimilated to ease pronunciation. Try saying exducation and you’ll begin to understand the phenomenon of assimilated prefixes. For more information, see Words their way (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2008; 2011) or Vocabulary their way (Templeton, Johnston, Bear, & Invernizzi, 2010). So, education–at its root–means to carry out.
Reform is a verb, which when it has an object, means to “make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it” (Oxford University Press, 2011). The word derives from Middle English and Old French. If we look to its etymology, we learn that re- is a prefix which means back or again, and form is a root which means exactly that: form (shape, create, build). So, reform means–at its heart–to form or make something again. Let’s see what happens if we replace the prefix re- with trans-, which means across or beyond (think: transcontinental, transport, transfusion). To transform means to make something completely or thoroughly different. What if we talked about transforming education instead of reforming it? Would that make a difference? Maybe. Maybe not.
What if we embarked on an etymological exploration to find a word that actually and accurately describes what some people are suggesting as “solutions” to our “problem”? First, let’s recap the problem: According to some, the problem of education is really a problem of “bad teachers”–not poverty, class size, or parental involvement–just bad teachers. Solution? Fire the “bad teachers.” OK, what’s next?
The problem of education is that our students don’t score well on international tests. Well, actually, American students in low-poverty areas scored comparatively well on those tests, but that’s a fact often overlooked in the Conversation. Another overlooked (or just plain ignored) idea is that education should be about more than just test scores. Nevertheless, the problem is that our students don’t do well on those tests, so we narrow the curriculum to test preparation.
Next problem? Once we get rid of the “the bad teachers” and greatly reduce our focus to test preparation instead of education, we increase production. In recent opinion piece, Bill Gates (who is an education expert because of what???) suggested that we “get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students.” Increasing the number of students receiving the transmission from the “good teachers” will surely solve all of our problems, economic, civic, and other. Sure, there’s extant research, which outlines a relationship between class size and achievement. But, since that research was probably conducted by people who work in colleges of education –the last bastion of “insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy” (http://bit.ly/e3KHzF)–we can safely ignore it, right? OK, so we’ve gotten rid of the “bad teachers”; we’ve increased class sizes; we’ve narrowed our curriculum to focus on test prep. Now what? We still need to ensure that no child gets left behind. Let’s provide teachers with scripts and teacher-proof the curriculum.
Let’s be more precise in our language choices.
The word dismantle comes to English from Old French and Latin. The prefix des- means removing (or taking away) and mateler means fortify or cloak in Latin. So, denotatively, dismantle means to remove fortifications or uncloak. Its meaning has evolved over time to mean to take something apart. That’s what the so-called reformers seem to be recommending: identify and fire “bad teachers”; rescind autonomy through demands that all teachers in a grade level are teaching the same thing at the same time regardless of the needs of the students in the room; disregard the influence of poverty; increase class sizes in order to make anything other than the transmission model of education possible; narrow curriculum to test prep; and reduce opportunities for students to engage in creative expression (bye bye, music & art!). From where I sit, the so-called reformers should really be called dismantlers. They don’t seem particularly interested in remaking public education, but taking it apart piece by piece.
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I’ve been struggling to find a way to start this blog post. I feel bombarded by the ideas and thoughts (and, because I’m a researcher, citations) that I’m trying to distill and encapsulate that I have gotten lost along the way. So, I’m doing what I tell my students to do: I’m writing toward clarity. What had I started out wanting to write about? I wanted to write about something I tell my teacher candidates and MA students all the time: the methods don’t really matter. Yes, I know that’s more heresy (or maybe I just flatter myself), but I believe it’s true.
Of course, I’m not saying that teachers should just go into classrooms and wait for learning to occur. That’s not how it works. The etymology of the word education tells us a lot. The Indo-European root of the word education is deuk, which means lead. In Latin, we find aqueduct, conduct, abduct, and duke, all of which connote movement, direction, and/or leadership. Shipley (1984) comments in the entry for deuk: “Note that education means ‘leading out’ not ‘pouring in’” (p. 62). So even at its very root, education is about leading students to knowledge. Therefore, it’s vital that teachers have a working knowledge of how people learn.
So, how do people learn?
How a person answers that question depends on her core beliefs about knowledge. So, before I get to the main point of this post (what was it again? Oh yeah—relationships matter more than methods), we need to take a very brief journey into the brain-bending world of epistemology. First, a caveat: this is intended to be a brief stop, not a long-term layover. I’ll include citations (if for no reason other than to prove I’m not just making all this stuff up), and encourage readers to follow their interests.
Grossly simplified overview of how people view knowledge
On one end of the spectrum, there are people who believe that knowledge is something that is separate from us, and is therefore something we have to pursue, master, and appropriate. On the other, there are people who believe that knowledge is something humans create through transaction with others, the world, texts, etc. (If you’re reading potential religious and/or political undertones in those two descriptions, you’re not wrong.)
Our primary guide on this tour (please forgive the tired journey metaphor…it just seems fitting), will be one of my heroes: Louise Rosenblatt. Although many people think of Rosenblatt only in terms of her contributions to literary analysis and theory, I think she was one of the most revolutionary thinkers about knowledge (and therefore education) in the last century.
The problem of binaries. In The Reader, the text, the poem (1978), Rosenblatt argued against binary views of readers and texts. The traditional (binary-based) orientation views the reader and text as static, pre-defined, and separate entities, which reflects dualistic thinking related to “the Newtonian stimulus-response paradigm” (Rosenblatt & Karolides, 2005, p. xviii). Specifically, Rosenblatt (1993) argued that the term interaction “had become tied to the Cartesian dualistic paradigm that treats human beings and nature, subject and object, knower and known, as separate entities” (p. 380). This interaction-view of reading defined the reader and text as fixed and predefined, and identified the job of the reader to as needing to dig “out a determinate meaning embedded in a text” (Rosenblatt, 1998, p. 890).
Think of the commonly accepted separation between mind and body, male and female, black and white… (For more on Descartes’ influences on how we think about knowledge, click here.) One way I try to help my students think about this concept of interaction is to envision two players on a soccer field, each attempting to gain control of the ball. They run toward the ball and each other, collide, and then (we hope) get back up to continue their pursuit. In education, this might mean that the learner and the concept-to-be-learned might collide, but neither has much lasting effect on the other. Despite the interaction, the two remain distinct and self-contained (Rosenblatt & Karolides, 2005, p. xviii).
Transaction, on the other hand, reflects “the relationship that exists between the human organism and the world” (Rosenblatt & Provenzo Jr., 1999), which Rosenblatt associated with Einsteinian physics (which, by the way, is WAY out of my sphere of understanding). Rosenblatt (1993, 1995) drew the word transaction from Knowing and the known (Dewey & Bentley, 1949), in which the authors articulated a new terminology to emphasize interconnectedness, rather than the separateness of the old ways of thinking. The transaction-view of knowledge construction focuses on the on-going relationship between humans and their world, in which each was seen to condition or influence the other. Rosenblatt drew a parallel to ecology, where “[h]uman activities and relationships are seen as transactions in which the individual and social elements fuse with cultural and natural elements” (Rosenblatt, 2005, p. 3).
So, back to the point of this post…If we think of knowledge as something that is outside of us, then education based on this belief focuses on identifying and promoting the best methods to get that knowledge into students. We’re back to the transmission model again. If we think of knowledge as something that we create through interaction with others, then we need to focus on the relationships required to encourage dispositions toward learning. Here’s a story to put a human face on these ramblings.
During my first semester at the university where I now teach, I met a new graduate student who had entered our program shortly after achieving licensure. She hadn’t started out wanting to be a teacher. Instead, she was a lover of reading and writing, and had ended up teaching high school English at a private school. By the time I met her, she had been teaching in a large public high school for a few years.
My first impression of her—and she knows I’m writing this, by the way—was that she was not completely sure of herself as a teacher. The other graduate students in the class had strong opinions and some had more time in classrooms to draw from as we discussed the ins and outs of literacy assessment. I admired her for speaking up in class, even when she knew that her classmates would disagree. Looking back, I can see that her insecurity may have brought out the worst in some of her classmates. Despite that, she wrote me a note in which she told me how excited she was to be in a class that was making a difference in her teaching. I still have that note.
Time passed (and I fretted about whether I was doing a good enough job, but that’s the subject for another post), and I began to notice something about the way this student spoke about her own students. In discussions, she drew comparisons between her “good” classes and her “bad” class; she talked about “bad students” and their lack of motivation. I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of her classmates, but I knew I wanted to say something to her about how she talked about her students. We met in my office, and I was very nervous, because I was about to offer some constructive criticism and I didn’t know how she’d take it. I don’t remember specific details, but I know I asked her to think about what underlying beliefs might be influencing her view of her students and the labels she used to describe them. I think I offered to lend her my copy of a powerful book on how teachers’ language choices affect students’ learning.
By the next semester, this student had almost completely transformed her relationship to/with her students. Whereas before she struggled with getting her students to write, she became flush with excitement about the writing her students were doing—primarily on their own to meet their own needs. She successfully moved herself and her students away from an interaction-view of required reading. When I asked her about her perception of the change, here’s what she wrote:
I think several shifts happened.
After I read The Downsiders, I realized how much I missed reading for enjoyment. It also highlighted for me that I enjoy young adult literature. As a result I brought back read alouds in class. (I had done them previously, but it didn’t work as well as I had hoped.) I received a note at Christmas last year from a student who loved read alouds when he was a sophomore. He said he loved being read to like he was a little kid, but he was a little kid at heart.)
I brought Sacred Writing Time (SWT) into my classes, because I wanted to write with them. I also started sharing some of my writings/stories. The first year I did SWT, I started writing stories featuring my students. Class pets emerged the first year I began SWT. As you know, it took on a life of its own. [NOTE: Her students began writing to other classes, each of which had adopted an imaginary class pet.]
I began to share stories about my dog. I remember wanting to relate to my students. After I would share stories about my dog, then students would share stories with me and/or the class. Perhaps this is the key: starting the relationship with students.
Another transition happened too. I used to think that only teaching the classics was appropriate/necessary. I realized that I needed to bring in young adult literature (pairing it with classics and book talks). I was talking to another teacher this week who is struggling. I think one of the reasons she is struggling is because she hasn’t been able to relate to her students.
I think I’ve figured out my “teacher personality” and that has helped me tremendously. I care about my students, reading, and sharing reading. It oozes out of me.
Had this teacher stuck with what she’d learned in her licensure program–methods for teaching, classroom management–I’m willing to bet she would never have seized the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with her students. She might have been one of those new teachers who leaves after a few short, frustrating years. Instead of relying on the old binary of student vs. teacher, methods vs. motivation, she embraced the potential of (difficult) relationships and has become an exemplary and effective teacher of young people.
When I am traveling in an unfamiliar city, I know that if I choose a national chain coffee shop I’ll get the same drink there as I would in the shop near my home. That’s because the chain ensures standardization by processing the same raw materials in the same way to ensure the same results. I like that in my coffee. I don’t like it in education.
What works in food service does not work in education.
Students are not raw materials that we can push through a manufacturing process to get uniform products (read: test scores). The industrial model of education ignores the fundamental humanity of the participants. But when cost becomes the most important factor, then manufacturers (or in this case, so-called education reform advocates) opt for standardization over personalization. As Allington (2002) pointed out, “the point of standardization is to ensure a minimum standard at a low cost” (p. 250).
So what does this have to do with teacher education?
I may be committing teacher-educator-heresy here, but I think it should be harder to become a teacher, because being a great teacher requires a commitment to fight against those pressures to standardize instruction. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consistency–how else will students have equitable opportunities to succeed if teachers don’t design curriculum to meet students’ needs? (Oh, wait, silly me… teachers aren’t allowed to design their own curricula! That’s left to the “experts.”) Being a great educator requires a whole lot more than mastery of content, and that’s where I think teacher preparation programs need to change our focus.
Being a great educator requires dedication, passion, vision, dispositions toward to life-long learning, perseverance, and a willingness to commit to potentially difficult relationships with students, parents, communities, and policymakers. True education is about relationships not content delivery. It also requires a willingness to speak up (even if our voices shake) on behalf of those whose voices are almost always ignored: students.
When I ask undergraduates to write mission statements to encapsulate the reason they want to become educators, many of them write about equality, equity, serving their home communities, and creating a better future. Many, however, write about how much they like kids. Others can’t articulate (perhaps because they don’t know?) why they want to be educators. Some can’t think of anything else to do, and think they’ll have summers and weekends off. Others go into teaching as a stop-gap before marriage. And, they like kids.
Liking kids is not enough!
Being a great educator means being willing to work at the top level of Bloom’s taxonomy, not just the bottom (hmmm…we may need to change how we assess prospective teachers’ competencies…). This means that teacher candidates need to actively engage in designing lessons that will facilitate their future students’ learning, not just memorization of content. Teacher candidates need to read, write, think, revise, and otherwise engage in creating knowledge, not just sit passively and accept what others say. They need to resist the transmission model of education. I know there are complications with applying Paolo Freire’s “banking concept” of education in the US. However, the basic premise he describes–education as a deposit made (usually by someone more powerful) into students’ heads–accurately describes how many people still view education. Here’s a bit more heresy: I’m willing to bet that some (let’s hope not many…) of my teacher educator colleagues around the country still teach about constructivist approaches to education through lecture. I know I’ve seen it.
Lack of questioning troubles me. I once facilitated a conversation about banned/challenged books in which I posed the following question: “What will you do if a parent challenges a book you’ve chosen for a particular unit?” One student said she’d give the parents a list of all the books she wanted to use to see if anyone objected to any of them. Once I recovered from my shock, I asked, “Are you going to let the parents decide what math materials you’ll use, too?” A great teacher candidate would have answered the first question by explaining that the lesson plan s/he had written—which would be appropriately mapped to state standards and benchmarks, of course—articulated the rationale for lesson’s materials.
Being a great educator requires a willingness to take the materials and curriculum approved by schools, evaluate the needs of ALL of the students in the room, and facilitate constructive acts of learning. This means that teacher candidates need to be critically engaged in their own learning. That starts with showing up and doing the work. Yes, I know it’s hard to balance work, family, and school responsibilities. And, yes, I understand that emergencies happen. But if students can’t balance those things now, how will they handle them when they’re responsible for the learning of 30 kids (or, if they go into secondary: 150 )? I can’t count how many times undergraduate students have complained that I ask too much of them (I have a reputation–of which I’m quite proud–of being “the mean one” in the building!). These same students are the ones who can’t tell me why they want to take responsibility for educating our nation’s youth. Call me crazy, but I think teacher candidates should have at least a rough idea…
A great teacher scaffolds students’ learning by identifying where students are currently (assessment) and where they and the teacher want to go, and then building a structure which facilitates that growth. Speaking of assessment, a great teacher conducts on-going formative assessment in order to identify areas where students need additional opportunities to move toward ownership of concepts. A great teacher uses formative assessment data to evaluate her/his next steps for instruction. A great teacher communicates with students and parents about assessment data, and involves students in goal setting for future learning. When policy makers talk about assessment, they mean high-stakes summative instruments that do not provide useful information to teachers for reshaping curriculum. In some states, the teachers don’t even get the results back until after the school year finishes. How is that supposed to help those teachers help those kids?
Ah, but we’re not really interested in educating kids, are we?
Teaching is a profession, a vocation. It’s not a job.
If you aren’t clear on the differences, see these definitions below (all from http://oxforddictionaries.com/).
profession /prəˈfɛʃ(ə)n/ noun. 1 a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Origin: Middle English (denoting the vow made on entering a religious order): via Old French from Latin professio(n-), from profiteri ‘declare publicly’ (see profess). profession (sense 1) derives from the notion of an occupation that one ‘professes’ to be skilled in (http://bit.ly/eXxmL7).
vocation /vōˈkāSHən, voʊˈkeɪʃən/ noun. 1 a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation; 2 a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as particularly worthy and requiring great dedication; 3 a trade or profession. Origin: late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin vocatio(n-), from vocare ‘to call’ (http://bit.ly/fQBjhN).
job /jäb, ʤɑb/ noun. 1 a paid position of regular employment; 2 a task or piece of work , especially one that is paid (http://bit.ly/hR4Gjz)
Note: to see the references that were not hotlinked, please click here.
I have resisted the idea of starting a blog for a while for myriad reasons: who cares what I have to say? how would I find the time? what would I write anyway?!? And yet here I am.
I’ve reached my saturation point with policymakers and self-proclaimed experts (any come to mind?) who think they are experts in education because they went to school. That’s like me saying that I’m an expert in medicine because I’ve been to many medical appointments in my life. I would no sooner tell physicians how to practice than I would attempt to do surgery. I am, however, comfortable entering into constructive dialogue with the medical people in my life; I don’t shy from giving feedback about how their practice affects me. I look for doctors who are Board Certified, because I believe medical (and other) professionals should aspire to exceed the guidelines established by reputable external licensing agencies and professional organizations. That’s how we ensure quality. Why am I obsessing about doctors? Well, because a lot of people have no trouble at all applying a medical model of diagnosis and treatment to education. Unfortunately, it’s not a great fit. Plus, educators aren’t exactly in the same tax bracket as doctors…
I’m also fed up with business leaders who believe that, because they’ve been successful running a business, we should apply that same model which made them lots of money to education. Education is NOT solely about preparing automatons who will do jobs without question. Well, it shouldn’t be about that. I wonder sometimes about ulterior motives. If we don’t educate people to be critical thinkers, perhaps they’ll be more likely to buy whatever the business community is selling… I’m not a cynical person by nature, but have been less and less able to ignore the vitriolic, patronizing, and disrespectful tone of the conversation about public education. Whose interests are promoted in this discussion? Whose are ignored or dismissed as unimportant? Who benefits if we allow our public education system to be dismantled? Certainly not our children.
This blog, therefore, will be a repository of rants, thoughtful discussions, links, and other musings about the state of education (and education policy) in the US at this peculiar moment in our history. I don’t know that I’ll have anything new to add to the conversation, but I’ll try. I invite readers to join in this conversation, and welcome differing options. However, I’m not interested in vitriol, hyperbole, or politics. Rather, I welcome engaged and constructive discourse with an aim to find common ground and make plans for real reform.
Thanks for reading so far.