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.