It’s the vocabulary, stupid!

It never ceases to amaze me.

I’ll be reading a story and out of the blue will come a question that knocks me back a step or two. “Why did the Pilgrims come from Hollywood, Mrs. Bisson?”  Now you and I know the Pilgrims never set foot in Hollywood — that word that was lost in translation was Holland.

The importance of common academic vocabulary, and sometimes just basic social vocabulary, is a challenge for urban education.  It is easy to slip into complacency once English Language Learning students are able to verbalize responses on the most basic of levels. They are nodding their heads — wouldn’t you if you didn’t want to be called on — and, with one or two word responses able to keep up the appearance of knowing more language than they actually do.

However, insisting on the use of nouns in place of demonstrative pronouns and the shortfalls in vocabulary become glaringly apparent.  “This hurts”, “What hurts?”, “This…” “What is that?” “This” (more insistently).

Our Coordinator of Reading, Dr. Phyllis Schlicter, recently shared some statistics with us in a vocabulary and semantics workshop.  Students from different linguistic backgrounds, present challenges but so do Native-speaking children from  backgrounds of little exposure to vocabulary. At the Kindergarten level, a vocabulary gap can easily be in the thousands of words.

This citation from , by Scott K. Baker, Deborah C. Simmons, and Edward J. Kameenui of the University of Oregon, points to the urgency of teaching vocabulary to our students:

The enduring effects of the vocabulary limitations of students with diverse learning needs is becoming increasingly apparent. Nothing less that learning itself depends on language. Certainly, as Adams (1990) suggests, most of our formal education is acquired through language. Learning something new does not occur in a vacuum. Rather, new learning always builds on what the learner already knows. Adams suggests that new learning is the process of forming novel combinations of familiar concepts. Learning, as a language-based activity, is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge. Learners must have access to the meaning of words teachers, or their surrogates (e.g., other adults, books, films, etc.), use to guide them into contemplating known concepts in novel ways (i.e., to learn something new). With inadequate vocabulary knowledge, learners are being asked to develop novel combinations of known concepts with insufficient tools.

The implications to my students is profound.

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