First Dispatch From the Field

The readings we’ve completed for class thus far this semester, along with my own experience reading Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’’t, and What Can Be Done About It, have left me thinking–a lot–about reading, how we learn to read, and what it means to teach and promote reading to secondary students. In Strategies for Reading Assessment and Instruction, Reutzel and Cooter cite research which suggests that “[m]ost children…acquire a vocabulary of over 10,000 words during the first 5 years of their lives.” Beyond that, we know that “[most] schoolchildren learn between 2,000 and 3,600 words per year,” though Reutzel and Cooter acknowledge that these estimates can “vary from 1,500 to more than 8,000” (p. 214). We also know that reading is the single most effective way to build one’s vocabulary, and therein lies the rub: as teachers, we work with students who don’t necessarily regard reading as a pleasurable activity, and who aren’t necessarily motivated to read. If a student lacks the vocabulary to comprehend challenging texts they’re assigned to read, they’re likely to become frustrated and give up on reading with the result that their vocabulary remains static while their reading counterparts’ vocabularies continue to grow and expand. It’s a classic case of the rich getting richer and the poor…well, if not getting poorer, at least staying stuck where they are. As teachers, how can we help students build rich vocabularies? In the first of what I hope will be a series of “dispatches from the field,” Jimena shared how she’s choosing to approach this problem.

As evidenced by the photograph above, Jimena is working with students to build a word wall, an instructional strategy known to support students’ learning Tier 2 words (fairly high frequency words in adult language that are encountered across a range of knowledge domains) and Tier 3 words (low frequency words oftentimes associated with specific knowledge domains–for example, science, English, or math). To make a cross-curricular connection, word walls represent a powerful tool for supporting students’ disciplinary literacy learning, as they help students enter a discipline by exposing them to discipline-specific jargon needed to access and comprehend texts in that discipline. Think, for example, of how the vocabulary knowledge needed to read and comprehend a sentence from a chemistry textbook (e.g., “The symbolic domain contains the specialized language used to represent components of the macroscopic and microscopic domains” varies from the vocabulary knowledge needed to comprehend a history textbook (e.g., “In the early 19th century, American society witnessed a radical transformation, including the spread of evangelical revivalism; the rise of the nation’s first labor and reform movements; and deepening sectional conflicts that would bring the country to the verge of civil war.”). Posing an additional challenge, we know that words take on different meanings across different disciplines.

Something to notice about the word wall that Jimena and her students are building: it incorporates words and images: each vocabulary word is written in print and accompanied by a picture illustrating its meaning. (I’m personally partial to the use of a turtle as a proxy for “amble”!) As we’ve talked about in class, this duel coding approach increases the likelihood that students will remember new words they learn.

That’s it for now, as a full day of faculty meetings awaits me! A special thanks to Jimena for sharing an example of how she’s experimenting with what we’re learning in class. Again, I hope  this post will be the first in a series of “dispatches from the field.” If you do something related to what we’re studying in class which you think is worth sharing with the group, by all means take a picture and send it along. Even better, write a short blog post (like I’ve done) for our web site. (It doesn’t have to be this long!) I’d love to feature your voices on this web site and make it an interactive space where we can share (and steal) ideas.

See you next Wednesday!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *