Friday, June 22, 2012

Vocabulary at the Center part 2

I think Judy Willis is the one that commented that things enter memory based on what they have in common and leave based on how they are different from others. Since hearing this idea, I have watched it be played out over and over. If people have nothing to anchor an idea to, the idea is usually lost. If they do not differentiate the new information from the old, the new will be lost. Yes, there are exceptions, but it rings true most of the time. This is the thought with which I am reading Vocabulary at the Center by Amy Benjamin and John T. Crow.

The authors point out the futility of most vocabulary instruction. We all know that the vocabulary list presented on Monday and tested on Friday is forgotten by Saturday. Yet, we persist in using this strategy in the misbegotten hope that something will stick; that those SAT words will magically reappear in all their glory in the face of the test, that student essays will be beautifully turned out in poignant, poetic phrases. This is one of our insanities as teachers.

The authors point out the different ways of knowing a word. Receptive and productive vocabulary are the two ways of knowing words. A SLP would say receptive and expressive. The receptive part is being able to read or hear the word and understand the gist. We clearly see this with small toddlers who can understand us even though they only have a few words they can speak. Then there is the productive part where we can effectively use the word in speech or writing. This is certainly the goal of our instruction, in spite of a poor choice of path to get there. By providing lots of experience with words, we build the framework that is necessary for productive understanding of words.

Marzano frequently asserts in his vocabulary trilogy the importance of selecting words. Only so many hours exist in the day. Every word on the list cannot be explicitly taught. Explicit teaching is critical. The words we teach need to be carefully selected. Words that cross disciplines, that students are likely to be exposed to on multiple occasions and that are part of our cultural vernacular are good candidates for instruction. For most people, words are how we hang our memories, thoughts and ideas. Temple Grandin, perhaps the most famous educated person with autism in America, thinks in pictures and many other with autism might do so as well, but the vast majority of people need words. Teaching people words allows us to tell a small child to use his words, not his hands when he is angry. It allows us to understand the ideas behind the Bill of Rights. It allows us to share our emotions- "Love is like a red, red rose..." (R. Burns). Virtually all aspects of school are based on words. Therefore, we owe our students to teach them a rich variety of words to learn and share information.

As I go forward with this book, I keep these thoughts in mind. I know we can do a better job teaching words. It is essential if we want a literate and globally competitive population. 

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