Thursday, January 31, 2013

Vocab Strategies that Work: Do This- Not That! wide reading and speaking

In Vocabulary Strategies that Work: Do This- Not That! Lori G. Wilfong writes about the most critical element of reading comprehension- vocabulary. My last post looked at Wilfong's use of word walls. This one will look at wide exposure to words. It is well established that one way we build vocabulary is through exposure- both in print and verbally. Never would it be possible to directly instruct all the words that students need to know to successfully complete high school. Our best readers have the biggest vocabularies. Children whose parents talk to their toddlers more have larger vocabularies. Children whose parents have a higher level of education have larger vocabularies, probably a result of increased exposure to complex and sophisticated language.

Unfortunately in our current society, our spoken and written language has become more informal which means we get reduced exposure to sophisticated language in speech. Years ago I worked with a student on English. We were reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He looked at me at one point and said no one ever talked like that so why did he need to learn the vocabulary. While in his experience, no one spoke with a wide, descriptive and formal vocabulary, I know that I had used the word he had complained about, epiphany, that day in conversation with my husband. My well educated friends (we are talking people with masters' degrees in business) referred to "nu-nus" and "binkies" without a thought and even looked oddly at me when I needed to ask what they were talking about. They mocked my use of "plummet" rather than fall. My children had the fortune to live in a household where cute nicknames and imprecise speech did not occur. As adults we need to provide the verbal backbone for a good vocabulary. We can do so contextually so that our meaning is not lost.

Wilfong refers to silent reading as critical to vocabulary development. Students who do not know how to tackle complex nonfiction material, however, are not going to try it independently. They need to start with small snippets and build the stamina to approach longer works. As a result, I agree with the author when she asserts that finding time to read silently is critical to  vocabulary development. To be successful, however, we cannot just assign a text and tell kids to read. They need to learn strategies for dealing with complex text and persevering when it gets difficult. While assigned texts play an important role in education, free choice reading is also essential. There needs to be a wide variety of reading material available so that students may select items of interest. Children who read graphic novels are more likely to read other things in their leisure time as well. My son likes to read antique price guides, but he supplements that with both fiction and nonfiction books, some of which he has read dozens of times. Children need to be able to reread favorites. They need to be told it is OK to stop reading something that loses the reader's interest. Magazines, newspapers, and books of all types need to jockey for space in a classroom. Picture books are not merely for our early elementary students. They are a fantastic way to introduce complex topics in an engaging manner; building background knowledge for complex texts so that there is a scaffold for learning.

What Wilfong fails to appreciate in her text is the virtue in reading out loud to kids. While it is imperative to develop silent readers, listening to well read materials is also highly valuable. It can inspire interest and excitement in a new book or genre, help develop fluency skills, and demonstrate how troublesome words should be pronounced. Parents can be encouraged to read to even their older kids. A wide variety of books on tape or digital files are available. Instead of watching DVD's in the car, listen to a book once in a while. It provides a great jumping point for conversations and demonstrates value in books and reading.

Reading and talking with our kids will help them develop stronger vocabularies that will help them be better prepared for life after high school. As the well educated individual in many of our student's lives, we owe it to them to offer this insight to the world.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Vocab Strategies that Work: Do This- Not That!- word walls

In Vocabulary Strategies that Work: Do This- Not That! Lori G. Wilfong writes about the most critical element of reading comprehension- vocabulary. While the strategies are not new, the book's approach is an inviting method of presenting them. Besides, in spite of copious research, we are, as a unit, terrible  about teaching vocabulary. Although students can learn about 8-10 words in a week (p. 4), across the subject areas we often see numbers of required vocabulary words upward of 50 per week. We see the major strategy that did not work for us revisited as we teach- present, test, repeat. We know about strategies that do work, but do not reserve the classroom time to implement them with fidelity. If we want our children to develop in to literate, well-educated adults, we need to change this. I have blogged repeatedly about vocabulary and vocabulary texts:;;;

My favorite part of this book is the format. While the book truly targets middle school, the strategies described easily cross to elementary and high school levels. It is presented as 10 chapters each with 3-5 strategies highlighted. For those who need to cite Common Core State Standards (CCSS), each chapter contains a section describing how the strategies described connect to the CCSS. Each chapter then proposes action steps. This makes the book particularly valuable for use as a PLC. If a school wanted to focus professional development on vocabulary, a single chapter could be addressed.

My favorite chapter is on word walls. It is the best description of how to use word walls that I have come across. It made me reflect on a middle school math teacher that I work with. She presented a mathematical symbol word wall at the beginning of the year. All the symbols the students will encounter on the state tests are included in a flap format. Symbol on top and description underneath it. She refers to the word wall during her lessons. Students can point out a symbol under discussion and it is self-correcting. Although she has not defined it specifically to the students as a word wall, that is what it is. As the authors point out, the key to an effective word wall is using the words from the wall. Students can group them, identify missing words, add synonyms, antonyms or sentences using the words with sticky notes, write a paragraph using either a self selected or teacher selected subset of words, compare and contrast two words, etc.

One activity that I think I will try is word wall baseball (p. 90).  Teams are made up. Words are removed from the word wall and distributed to the player "at bat." Misreading the word equals an out. Students are asked to spell, define, use the word in a sentence and connect the word to another word wall word. For each of the steps they correctly complete, they advance a base. For my struggling learners I would change this. Spelling is the least important of the ideas and for many students the either easiest or hardest step. If students were given the choice of one of the four for each base or perhaps you could add connecting the word to another subject correctly, using it in a metaphor or breaking out word parts and describing how the word part is seen in both the definition of the target word and an additional word as an option. For example:

  • defined: the process in which plants convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen
  • sentence: Plants need to carry out photosynthesis or the world will run out of oxygen.
  • connection to a word: photosynthesis is the opposite of respiration because photosynthesis is where plants use carbon dioxide, water and energy to create sugar and oxygen  and respiration is where cells use sugar and oxygen to create energy and carbon dioxide.
  • connection/metaphor: Photosynthesis is like writing a paper. You use raw material of energy, paper and pen to produce an essay like photosynthesis uses energy and raw material to make sugar.
  • word parts/etymology analysis: photo-light; syn-together; thesis-place- photography both use light

Erie Canal
  • defined: A man made waterway that connects the Hudson River at Albany in eastern New York with the Niagara River and the Great Lakes.
  • sentence: When the Erie canal was built, people could more easily move farm goods to the cities of Albany and New York and manufactured goods to the "west."
  • connection to a word: Lake Erie is one of the Great Lakes that the Erie Canal connects to the Atlantic.
  • connection/metaphor: We took a ride on the canal boat, the Mary Jamison, last year.
  • word parts: a canal is something that is dug; canal comes from the word channel- cut a channel in the ground. Both channel and canal are something that is dug.
  • defined: a four sided polygon.
  • sentence: we studied many types of quadrilaterals: squares, trapezoids and rectangles.
  • connection to a word: Quadrilaterals are four sided polygons and triangular pyramids are four sided polyhedrons.
  • connection/metaphor: The golden quadrilateral is a highway system in India that connect four major cities.
  • word parts: quadri- four; latus- side; quadriceps are a group of four muscles in the front of your thigh- both words use the root quad to tell that there are four parts.

A student would get a chance to do any of the six for each of the four bases. If there was a mistake it would be an out. They could try to complete as many as they can or stop when they have done all they are comfortable with. You could have the other team have the option of completing the six for an out. It would be a fun way to practice the vocabulary. Active children might really enjoy walking around the room's bases.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

change the culture, change the game

My husband brought this book home from work and read it on a plane ride to the corporate roll out of the ideas encapsulated within it. When he arrived home he had positive things to say about the trainers and the book. Knowing my eclectic tastes in reading, he recommended that I would enjoy it also.

Change the Culture, Change the Game by Roger Connors and Tom Smith outlines their methodology for changing corporate culture in order to achieve radically different results. Businesses often desire to change results; be it anything from higher profit margins, better customer service to expanding into new markets. They target results, and often even though they have clearly identified their goal, fail to achieve it. In order to increase result achievement, the authors stress that the underlying experiences and beliefs of the employees must change so that they will engage in different actions and achieve different results. The quote that comes to mind is often attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Education is currently on a precipice. Race to the Top set new goals- every child college and career ready and every teacher highly qualified. To achieve these goals they threw together a large pot of money- not enough to implement the changes it desired, but enough to entice cash strapped states- required the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and demanded new teacher accountability systems- the infamous APPR. We can radically change the culture of education in America or we can slide back to our comfortable mediocrity. Time and time again we have seen reform efforts come and go with little impact on the state of education in America. Will this time be different?

While I would love to say yes, the more grounded part of me says no. We are focused only on the top of the pyramid- results and actions, not on the underlying support structures: experiences and beliefs. My experience with education is that the first year of implementation of the tests will show a dismal lack of performance, after a few years of teachers figuring out how to teach to the test, the test performance will rise slightly and the test levels of difficulty will dip.

Do I think the culture of teaching is going to change? Yes. For the better? No. Teachers of tested areas will become harder to find, the curriculum will narrow, cheating on the tests will become more rampant, teachers will be demoralized.

Administrators need to be empowered to create experiences that will establish beliefs that this is doable and good for education, not just another fad. Threatening teachers with the risk of firing if their students do not do well will demoralize; teams identifying trouble spots and working to improve them will be empowering. Current value added systems are fraught with high measures of error and are viewed as poor tools by teachers; research driven, high quality measures of assessment will be more favorably received. Tests that best measure socioeconomic levels and if some learning goals have been achieved but are used to identify if quality teaching is going on will be embraced as well as tests of freshness of bread that center on the question, "Will deer eat it?"

Teachers try to tell students to be wary of jumping on the bandwagon, but the entire field has been forced to do so. How does this experience impact teachers? Not well.

There are far better ways to engage in change to achieve the desired goals. Shamefully, the legislators and executives have disregarded these tools in favor of imposed will. Reading this book saddened me, not just because we are going about this wrong, but because the information about how to achieve change has been out there and we continue to ignore it. Our government is treating us like a dictator, without the savage teeth of some authoritarian regimes, but with steel gloves. That does not mean that people will accept it. For all of Hitler's work to redefine the German culture, resistance was a strong element that persevered. Without engaging in productive experiences to shape a new culture of educational success across the nation, there will be pockets of change, but overall a lack of achievement.