Building Vocabulary Crucial to Common-Core Success, New Research Says

By Catherine Gewertz — February 12, 2013 1 min read
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In all the hubbub about the balance of fiction and nonfiction in the common core, you might well have been hearing less lately about its other expectations. One of those is a renewed focus on the teaching of vocabulary, especially academic vocabulary.

The latest, fascinating installment in an ongoing series of studies examining the teaching of vocabulary holds some ominous advice in light of the Common Core State Standards: If kindergarten teachers aren’t doing strong work on this, there isn’t much hope for children succeeding in later grades on the new standards.

In a story today, my colleague Sarah Sparks takes you on a detailed tour of the new research about the importance of academic vocabulary. So check that out.

But a few interesting themes emerged as I read about the research. First is something we’ve heard before, but it never ceases to amaze me: that there is too little teaching of vocabulary in general, and that children in higher-poverty schools tend to get even less of it than those in lower-poverty schools. When you combine that with the recognition that children in higher-poverty schools typically learn fewer words at home, as well, it’s easy to see huge gaps taking shape.

Another interesting aspect pointed up by the new study is that teachers frequently teach vocabulary as words unrelated by any theme, even though children learn vocabulary better when they are focusing on clusters of related words. Too often, also, the words children are learning are not the ones that will help them understand the stuff they’re reading. And they’re also not the types of words they will have to grapple with in the academic disciplines.

That’s not the most inspiring preparation for the expectations in the Common Core State Standards. One of the six “anchor standards” for the language strand of the standards says students must:

Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college- and career-readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

That’s a description of the end result, of course, since it refers to the “college- and career-readiness level.” But when you follow the concept of that standard into early elementary school, you see that it translates into things like this, in kindergarten:

Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts.

And this, in 3rd grade:

Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate conversational, general academic, and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal spatial and temporal relationships (e.g., After dinner that night, we went looking for them).

And, by 5th grade, this:

Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal contrast, addition, and other logical relationships (e.g., however, although, nevertheless, similarly, moreover, in addition).

How deeply these changes in expectations are penetrating the early-elementary grades bears watching as the common core moves into classrooms across the country.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.