NEAP just released a study reinforcing the role of vocabulary in reading comprehension. (A summary of the report is available here as are links to the study itself http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2011/voc_summary.asp .) Education Week reviewed the report here http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/12/06/14naep.h32.html?tkn=QQOFvwXLRwUB5hq2otyk6pETov%2BhtQdKUkjS&cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS1.
Long has it been recognized that vocabulary is the cornerstone of comprehension. Reading and English teachers have used a variety of successful and unsuccessful methods to try and address this issue which continues to persist today. The NEAP study reveals that students in the top quartile of reading performance were also in the top quartile of vocabulary knowledge and similarly, kids in the bottom quartile of reading comprehension were in the bottom quartile of vocabulary understanding. What surprises me is that we continue to spend money researching the link which everyone admits exists rather than spend research dollars on successful vocabulary development methodology.
Kids enter kindergarten with a a huge range of vocabularies, mostly determined by their socioeconomic status (SES). As low SES students grow, their vocabulary does not grow at the same rate as kids who are from middle class homes, probably a result of exposure to rich vocabulary and experiential environments. We need to address the issue here as they just begin to learn language, not wait until they fail reading comprehension tests.
The stickler of statistics does exist. There will always be a bottom quartile and a top quartile. The test scoring is based on the existence of the bell curve. The challenge, therefore is not merely to address the needs of the lowest performers, but to move the entire bell up the scale. (Narrowing the bell, probably means not properly addressing the needs of our brightest students.) This means that teachers must use vocabularies that present challenging words to students, not in isolation, but in rich context. We can say "the twisting climbing ladder on the playground is a helix or spiral," that we will not accept "dilapidated papers ripped from spiral notebooks or crumpled from desks and backpacks," and the book that fell off the desk "plummeted." If home environments cannot or will not reinforce complex and rich vocabulary, we desperately need to do so.
We also need to embrace rich vocabulary instruction. Twenty words to define on Monday and test on Friday does not work. My prior posts about vocabulary such as http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=3581426092015285391#editor/target=post;postID=1020278193567943834 and http://susansnotesonschool.blogspot.com/2012/06/vocabulary-at-center-part-2.html, details some of the research and techniques that are recommended to teach vocabulary. If we are going to present complex texts to our students, it is more important than ever that they have the tools to approach complex vocabulary. Going beyond a broad and diverse vocabulary, students need to be able to identify context clues to figure out meaning, use picture clues, utilize their prior knowledge make predictions and identify irony and sarcasm in text. One of the Common Core shifts is from fiction to nonfiction. Using context clues, however, might best be done in literature as opposed to textbooks, where the new vocabulary is not highlighted and explicitly defined in context.