One of the keys students must possess to succeed in high school and college is the ability to communicate fluently in verbal and written academic language. All students benefit from the study and application of academic vocabulary, but some students stand to gain even more from this emphasis.
Three years ago, I started teaching in a high poverty school, and I was struck by the profound deficiency in my students' vocabularies. Words that appeared in our grade-level reading were foreign to many of my students, and their academic vocabularies were almost nonexistent. Some education pundits would say that teachers aren't doing their jobs, and are passing students through without actually teaching, but I know excellent teachers with years of experience, who work hard to push their students to learn, and who still have students who struggle.
Why is this?
While my students did not possess extensive academic vocabularies, they often exhibited wisdom beyond their years, and we had many complex classroom discussions about our literature over the years. My students are not struggling because of a lack of intelligence.
One problem is that some students are surrounded by family and friends who actively devalue education. Those students have no one close to them who uses academic vocabulary and who is successful in the business world. In some cultures, in both rural and urban areas, education is derided, and students are actively encouraged to subvert the system. (Think about those kids who collect demerits or “Fs.”)
Another problem is that students who are struggling with poverty also exhibit issues with retaining verbal or visuospatial information in their working memories. Teachers HAD been teaching them academic vocabulary for years, but without parental or cultural support, and with the profoundly negative effects of poverty, those students continued to struggle, and in some cases, rebel.
Recent research has confirmed that students from poverty-stricken families enter school with far fewer words in their vocabularies than students from wealthy families. And that's not all. Last year, I wrote about a study that showed the quantity of vocabulary words isn't just the problem. Students from poverty-stricken households also lack high quality words, such as the academic vocabulary words we learn in school.
What does this all mean?
In a nutshell, teachers must work harder, and devise more effective ways for students to learn academic vocabulary.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending a Building Academic Vocabulary workshop led by Robert Marzano. While the ideas presented in Marzano's work are well-researched, I discovered that students had little background knowledge with which to associate many of the more abstract words, and therefore had little to discuss with peers. Students also struggle with trying to use the words in new contexts or create visual representations.
I discovered the same struggles with using academic vocabulary in both rural and urban students, and I realized my methods were not working. So I devised a process for my students to familiarize themselves with wholly unfamiliar words:
- Provide students with up to five vocabulary words at one time.
- Students either look up a dictionary definition, or I provide the definition, and write the word on the blank side of an index card and the meaning on the lined side.
- Students use Google to find a graphical representation of the word's etymology. You can do this by typing the vocabulary word into a Google search, followed by etymology. For example: boisterous etymology reveals:
- Find those words in real world texts, like newspaper articles. Students can use news.google.com to find actual newspaper articles that use their vocabulary words in headlines and the body of the text.
- Students also choose a word in each article that they don't already know, or if they know all the words, one that they think is interesting and is at least on a high-school-level difficulty. (This gives me some leverage when a student wants to write down words like talk or bird.)
- At the end of the unit, students choose one of the words and create a poster, including:
- the word
- a sentence and source using the word
- the etymology
- a graphical representation
I have been very impressed with the results, and students have specifically stated that finding the word in news articles has helped them learn the words, and the proper usage, much better than struggling to write the words on their own.
Stay tuned — I'll post pictures of my current students' work in the next few days…