Teaching Vocabulary: A Word to the Wise

Vocabulary instruction! That tedious, necessary classroom evil that “promises” to increase SAT scores, create Pulitzer prize-winning writers and equip the best of lawyers and debaters! In teacher certification programs at the elementary level, methods students can learn fun, creative, contextual, meaningful, content/curriculum-related, research-based methods to teach vocabulary words for reading and speaking. And, as you well know, there are many different curricula that purport to teach vocabulary, well packaged into a workbook delivery system, with testing materials and answers to the workbook exercise questions to facilitate grading. One of the most popular of these curricula in independent as well as public schools is Wordly Wise. Now, before I continue, please take a moment, in the spirit of Wordly Wise, and fill in the blank (the cloze item) with the first word that comes to your mind.  Be honest and be prompt; do NOT overthink it.  Ready?  OK….

Fill in the blank with the “correct word”:

How many of you are __________________ enough to admit you love Wordly Wise?

I, for one, can think of nothing more entertaining than doing an entire chapter of such exercises before going to bed!  (I promise there’s no sarcasm here!) What did you answer, however? Here’s a possible word bank!

Brave              Stupid             Unabashed            Enthusiastic            Lazy

Resourceful   Practical         Creative                   Busy                       Honest

Go ahead!  Substitute your word or one of these and read the sentence aloud!

Personally, I get wonderfully charged when I teach or observe others teach elementary grade children vocabulary! What better privilege than to orchestrate amazingly meaningful opportunities, activities, lessons etc. for kids to expand their speaking vocabularies AND their reading vocabularies both independently and jointly! In the context of learning to read and write, students can experience joyful encounters with understanding and communicating more and more sophisticated meaning. Throughout my graduate school education, supervising teachers and consulting with schools and teachers, I have seen teachers truly make literature and content/subject matter alike “come alive” in a way that students embrace new words, express them, ask for them, celebrate them! Whether the elementary “lessons” were from teacher-created materials or from packaged materials like Wordly Wise, I have helped many a teacher transform a scripted curriculum into vibrant, meaningful lessons that promote developmentally appropriate literacy in the context of vocabulary acquisition. And, yes, the lessons complemented professional, “best” practices from the field of Elementary Education! (For amazing research and support, I must shout out to Dr. Dixie L. Spiegel and Dr. Jill Fitzgerald,  both at UNC-Chapel Hill, who taught me more about teaching reading than they could EVER know!)

ww3000_4th_covers

But, I have also experienced teachers and entire lower schools who embrace the “workbook curriculum” as merely one more thing to cover in a typical elementary school classroom… Accelerated Reader, cursive, Math facts, and Wordly Wise, for example. Moving through the material is the goal, nothing else, nothing more. Teachers, departments and even schools assume that if students have made it through 2nd grade Wordly Wise, then they will be ready for 3rd grade Wordly Wise, and, whenever the sequence finishes, they will be linguists and scholars and spelling bee winners and writers and orators, and more.  These educators assume that students can use these words in everyday and academic writing and speech without having practiced it in a relevant manner or context.

 

Case in Point:  Another Personal Story!

My son and a friend were in an elementary class where the entire school praised Wordly Wise. As the entire class went through Chapter 1, my son and his friend quickly stood out as already knowing the majority of the words in that chapter, and the next, and the next. In September, I discovered that the two boys were told to stop raising their hands to answer the questions from the exercises that the whole class was doing at the same pace at the same time:  section A on Monday, Section B on Tuesday, Section C on Wednesday, Section D on Thursday and the Chapter multiple choice test on Friday.  I suggested that my son already knew the words and that the two boys could help do supplemental videos and presentations for the class, presentations that put the words into relevant, age-appropriate contexts for all. With the amazing technology the school boasts, the boys would get to write and “speak” the words in an enjoyable way with skits, news broadcasts, interviews, etc.. The teacher did not respond, offended that a parent would tell her how to teach. The Division Head said she liked the idea, but she needed to know that the boys “already knew the words” before they could be allowed to do “NON-workbook exercises.”

I recommended designing an entire Wordly Wise curriculum and instruction “packet,” divided by thematic unit/chapter with lessons in the form of a “template” of how this might be done. I would offer my services for free! The Division Head asked me to put it in writing for her. I did. She received it and did not address me or the issue again until JANUARY!!! 

Here is what I suggested could be done FOUR months prior to this response. My son’s teacher would give the entire class the Wordly Wise PRE-test- really just the chapter test as a diagnostic to see which students knew most of which words. Then, for day 2, she could let the small group of students (those missing 3 or less from the 25 words for the week) work on learning the ones they “missed” on the pre-test. Then, during days 3 and 4, that group could work on a skit or a video or whatever else would communicate the 10 most frequently missed words out of the rest of the class as assessed by the Monday diagnostic. In the meantime, the rest of the class did the doldrums of discreet point workbook exercises C and D. Friday, the small group could present its work to the rest of the students to “prime” them for the “post-test,” ensuring one last time that the weaker students would see and/or hear a meaningful use of the most unknown words. I designed the “packet” for the Division Head, as the teacher was getting a bit annoyed at the fact that I was calling attention to the travesty that my son and his friend were told to read or sit in their seat and NOT volunteer to answer question from September until January every time the whole class did Wordly Wise exercises! (Which was every day!)

AGAIN……   

The Division head responded to my curriculum proposal in two ways.  YOU can determine the appropriateness of her responses. First she told me she was going to “deliver” the curriculum packet to Matthew’s teacher as if she, herself, had thought of the idea. She wanted me to delete all reference to me, my son, etc. and make it “generic” since it would not be well-received coming from a parent. I obliged the next day. Second, after another 6 weeks not responding, she called me and told me that my ideas were not working because everyone was studying the vocabulary on the weekend so they could get a good grade on the pre-test and not have to do anything else with Wordly Wise for the rest of the week! (overt versus covert curriculum?!?!) The teacher had not even tried to implement the application activities of writing and presenting original works with the words. She merely told the students if they scored well, they would get to read or sit quietly like Matthew and his friend! The Division Head told me she had a terrific solution for the teacher and was merely calling me to tell me she had “solved” the issue! When I asked what that solution was, the Division Head proudly stated, “I just told the teacher the kids can’t take their Wordly Wise workbooks home with them on Fridays. That way they can’t study and they won’t know all the words!!!!!”

FOR THE THIRD TIME….   

I was at CVS at that moment, and I cried publicly as I hung up the phone. The next day, I arranged for alternative instruction in Language Arts for my son during the regularly scheduled time. It was April by then, and my son had done literally nothing in Language Arts class but sit quietly, and, “read” for 7 months! If you follow this blog, he is twice exceptional. Does he migrate to “reading” anything on his own? NO! He is dyslexic. Was he given enjoyable things to do with his “reading?” NO! His reading vocabulary almost matches his above average speaking vocabulary if/when the words are pronounced to him once. Could he, along with the classmates who had already “mastered” a chapter’s thematic set of vocabulary, have presented their classmates with enjoyable, meaningful ways to acquire new vocabulary? Absolutely!

The Issues

Yes, this one is personal! After all, this blog is called MY education education. The issues have had 8 years to settle. So, in honor of Wordly Wise and all those teachers I know who use curriculum materials as TOOLS and not the curriculum itself, and to those teachers who may not be at a place to see the issues surrounding the use of such an AMAZING curriculum as Wordly Wise, here are some of the main issues I see in this “story.”

NOTE:  I can discuss many issues related to this story. Therefore, in honor of my trying to learn to be briefer in this blog medium, I will not elaborate much. Hopefully, this will encourage you to ask questions and/or reply to the blog!

  1. Over-Reliance on Curriculum Materials

Curriculum packages always reflect pedagogical, philosophy and psychoeducational assumptions that may or may not be accurate or appropriate. They are, in short, convenient! Using these packages as they are scripted without allowing students the dignity to see their relevance or to help transfer the knowledge and skills to real-life contexts is a crime against the students and their families.

Related issues:

Parent or supervisor fear or inability to challenge a teacher mid-year

-Over-commitment to an approach and long-term plans (unwillingness

to change)

-School’s unspoken “rule” that parents may not interfere with a teacher

  1. Supervisory Weakness and Insecurity

When parents complain to a teacher’s supervisor after they have gone civilly and pleasantly to the teacher first, and when the complaint is as egregiously in conflict with the entire school’s mission as this one, a supervisor must take the strong stand and go to the teacher with support. If the supervisor does not have anything to offer the teacher to resolve the situation and feels insecure or threatened (which is very often the case), is it the student who must suffer almost 8 months of zero growth? Where is the humility to admit the need for a solution and perhaps ask for help? Or, does the supervisor actually believe her “solution” of keeping students from “learning” a system to get out of busy work is quality instructional advice? IDK. YOU be the judge!

Related issue:

Teacher’s/Administrator’s/School’s fear, embarrassment or intimidation (or anger?) that a parent (albeit, a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction) might know more than they

-As a corollary, is this not just an example of educator arrogance?

  1. Differentiated, CREATIVE instruction is not that hard for small classes!

Is it that hard to manage a few kids in a class of 18 and who happen to have an already strong background knowledge of the vocabulary (or any curriculum for that matter) in a way that challenges that few to grow and integrates their work into the life of the whole class and in a way that helps ALL students? Isn’t that differentiated instruction? Isn’t that the essence of designing creative lessons for an individual class? The research is there! The training is there! ONLY IF THE HUMILITY, ENTHUSIASM AND PROFESSIONAL INTEGRITY ARE THERE, TOO!

  1. False Advertising

This is just a pet peeve of mine! If a school, such as a “grammar school” or a very traditional boarding/prep school, proudly advertises the kind of instruction that is merely to beat discreet point information into the heads of kids and then testing and micromanaging students to “succeed,” then I have absolutely no grounds to complain here! As it goes, however, my son’s school boasted instruction and resources such as state-of-the-art technology that would help teach the “whole child” 21st Century skills in a “hands-on” environment with small classes and personalized attention and a commitment to let the students express their creativity in plastic and performing arts. Blah, blah, blah, blah! This is, indeed, why my wife and I chose the school! I, as a professional educator, believed this to be the best environment for my children. So, are prescribed curricula even to be a part of such an advertised “promise?” I could hire a college freshman to “homeschool” my children with such materials for a much lower cost.

  1. Overt Versus Covert Curriculum

When supervising a student teacher, I love to challenge her to ponder the difference between what SHE THINKS her goals and objectives are (overt curriculum) versus what her STUDENTS THINK her goals and objectives are (covert curriculum). There is a delicate, negotiated blending of overt versus covert curricula. Students are notorious for practicing what I call LAW (Least Amount of Work)! A teacher may BELIEVE she is teaching vocabulary and inspiring erudite dialogues, sophisticated, academic conversation! But students’ LAW practices reduce the teacher’s efforts to the bare minimum. In this case, the students just wanted out of tedious, boring, routine exercises, so they memorized the definitions of the word. In addition, they wanted “free time,” which is “leave-me-alone” time.

  1. Misrepresentation of Learning Differences

Matthew knew the words, but needed ways to “read” and “speak” them that would solidify his giftedness in the right way. Many dyslexics are labelled as “lazy” because they do not choose academic work for pleasure and, at times, find it hard to follow the directions and sequences of traditional methods, seemingly distracted and wandering lazily. Matthew’s teacher’s solution to “let him read” left him to his own devices with no accountability. His only directive was NOT to bother the others in the class. So… he learned laziness… a laziness that says “If I do not bother you, I deserve to do nothing. I don’t need to develop any more academically since I already get it.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! But even today, we battle with our son’s initiative to “make his thinking visible.” (See Ron Richhart, Mark Church and Karen Morrison). Teaching to learning differences should synergize into instruction that encourages all students to achieve, not encourage poor or even stereotyped habits in those who may struggle or who may be academically gifted!

Positives

-I was able to teach my son academic reading comprehension strategies using a college remedial reading textbook! (Yes, I’m bragging!)

-I was available to step in where he was slipping and where he was being neglected! Not all dads have that luxury or that ability.

-I kept my cool from September to April! For those of you who choose to intervene with your child’s education/educators when it is necessary, you know it is difficult to exercise patience. For me, I credit my amazing wife to helping me be calm and collected.

-I wrote a really great curriculum guide to use the already awesome Wordly Wise curriculum! So much work and attention had gone into the final draft of that specific personal curriculum guide, and, in the hands of a competent teacher (or a dorky, overzealous word snob and curriculum specialist such as myself), the curriculum plan includes an abundance of creativity that can draw on all the students’ strengths while energizing them to work on understanding vocabulary in context. The strategies suggested for each of the thematic units I designed are based on sound pedagogical principles and adaptable to any schools’ overall curriculum. If you’d like to hire me to consult on how, give me a message.

Negatives

-You can’t get those 7.5 months back at a crucial time in habit and intellect development.

-WHY DO SCHOOLS BUILD SUCH CLOSED COMMUNITIES?

-Why do parents have to take extreme measures in order to help their child in a school?

-What would have happened to my son if his entire 4th grade Language Arts was a vacuum? A student can go 7.5 months doing nothing in class, his parents can approach the teacher, the Division Head and the Principal about it and it raises no red flags nor changes? And, think about it! If Matthew had been in a public school, he would have been delinquent from school while I taught him myself; there would have been no option to pull him out for better instruction. He would have been condemned to the same professional negligence for rest of the academic year.

-Why don’t (can’t?) teachers ask for help?  

-Why don’t (can’t?) administrators listen to parents (especially those in the business)?

-Why don’t (can’t?) administrators help teachers who are experiencing a glitch in what they’ve laid out for the academic year? We all know things don’t always go swimmingly as planned from the beginning to the end of the school year?

-Why are teachers and administrators so committed to “academic freedom” that they protect, promote and even perpetuate practices (and even support teachers) that are not educationally sound?

-MOST IMPORTANTLY, we may only fight this battle in the elementary grades. After that, the practice of, not the research on, mindful vocabulary teaching in the middle and high school level is almost inexistent. Teachers in the middle grades and above rely solely on the vocabulary list at the end of each chapter of their textbook to “teach their students what they need to know.” The enhancement of literacy skills in a respective discipline never appears in the lesson plan. Content Area Reading Comprehension Instruction is absent completely.

CONCLUSION

I so enjoy helping teachers design creative, meaningful and “literacy-oriented” vocabulary instruction, in English as a first language or in any second language! With the proper context, students naturally fall in love with words, including understanding and expressing clear, sophisticated ideas and meaning. A small percentage of the population (Suzy and Sam Suckups, see prior blog post) will easily apply the most boring of instruction in vocabulary to their own verbal inclination. But, almost all students will benefit from vocabulary instruction that is based on a broad and deep application of pedagogy! And from Kindergarten through College! Someone, whether teacher, supervisor or other administrator ought to have the courage to challenge the blanket and uninspiring/uninspired delivery of a scripted vocabulary curriculum, or any curriculum for that matter! Be brave! Reach out! To me or any other capable professional who can put you on the right path. Let me hear from you!

 

3 thoughts on “Teaching Vocabulary: A Word to the Wise

Show me your EducationEnthusiasm!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s