“Words are not just words. They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought,” states Marilyn Jager Adams (Common Core State Standards [CCSS], Appendix A). “When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge. What makes vocabulary valuable and important are not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.”
Within the CCSS framework, everyone is in the vocabulary business. That’s right—everyone, according to Adams, research professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University. Adams’s body of research contributed significantly to the six English Language Arts (ELA) Common Core shifts in instruction: the addition of more nonfiction texts, the focus on building knowledge, the escalation of text complexity at every grade level, the increased importance of citing textual evidence, the emphasis on literacy across disciplines, and the attention to academic terminology.
If you read and study Adams’s work, you will note that she distills achievement to its basic elements: the more you read, the greater your vocabulary. The greater your vocabulary, the better you read. The better you read, the more you comprehend. The more you comprehend, the broader your knowledge base, and the broader your knowledge base, the more you can achieve. Therefore, on a rudimentary level, achievement is dependent on vocabulary.
Adams provides plenty of other insights on language, such as the fact that our everyday spoken language is, typically, grammatically incorrect, void of adjectives and prepositions, and includes a mere 10,000 words. In our students’ work, we underscore correct punctuation and grammar, complex sentence structure, and a vigorous vocabulary. This exposes a fundamental dichotomy that we can address by modeling. We need to elevate classroom discussions and articulate and mirror our expectations of our students. Conversely, we need to require a higher level of reading.
The link between poverty and vocabulary deficit has long been acknowledged and accentuates the disparity between verbal and written skills. Librarians actively support programs (Reading Is Fundamental, etc.) designed in part to battle this shortfall. We can further embrace the Common Core vocabulary shift by reenergizing our efforts to select read-alouds with robust language, helping students find engaging (and challenging) nonfiction books that match their interests, carefully choosing titles for reading lists, and initiating independent reading incentives. We can encourage students to “research like a detective and write like a reporter,” as David Coleman, a CCSS ELA author, suggests.
Locally, we have recommended an approach whereby we purposefully integrate academic vocabulary into classroom instruction whenever possible. When students hear unfamiliar terminology, they simply hold up a hand making a “V” sign with their fingers, so teachers will know to flood the conversation with synonyms. It’s a visual assessment technique that enhances instruction without interrupting it. The unknown word becomes part of the student’s receptive vocabulary, and closer to his or her productive vocabulary, leading to comprehension and achievement.
The CCSS also embrace the premise that every subject area has content-specific terms that can be used to assess student understanding, referred to as “tier-three vocabulary.” Content knowledge and understanding is often demonstrated or measured with the correct usage of tier-three terminology. Research has its own content-specific vocabulary such as “credibility,” “bias,” “annotate,” “cite,” and “synthesize.” Terms encountered in the library are the expressions of the Information Age and should not be overlooked.
Librarians can model vocabulary-rich lessons. Start a “word of the day” program. Include games such as Scrabble and Upwords in your lending library. Model a dynamic vocabulary. Simply by holding words in high regard and spotlighting lyrics and language, librarians will begin to embrace the CCSS shift. Even with explicit vocabulary instruction and implicit vocabulary acquisition, most students’ vocabularies fall far below the one million words they encounter in print. It is a mighty high hill for them to climb, but we can be their guides.
Paige Jaeger (pjaeger@WSWHEBOCES.org) is coordinator for school library services, Washington Saratoga Warren Hamilton Essex BOCES, Saratoga Springs, NY.