Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Vocabulary and Knowledge Development

Recently I have had the opportunity to work with several groups of educators in the southeast region. Over and over again the notion of what students know (or don't know) comes up in the conversations as a challenge to our work in the classroom. Teachers have discovered that they cannot assume that students arrive with knowledge of the world, even the world that surrounds them. For instance one teacher reported third graders who did not have the word for wreathe and another who only had five second graders who had been to the beach.

There are a number of things going on here. Some of our students have many experiences but for various reasons - few conversations outside of school or few conversations in English outside of school - they don't have the words for what they know or perhaps the precise term for what they know. In other cases, students lack experience with the world. They have not had opportunities to visit beaches (not just one), museums, or even local libraries, and they have not read (or been read to) about these ideas or experiences.

Knowledge is built in two important ways. We have knowledge of the world and knowledge of how things work. So when you are driving a car, you can only use your Navigation system sucessfully because your knowledge of the world provides the understanding of direction, how roadways work, where some places are in relation to others and so forth, and your knowledge of how things work allows you to drive the car and use the system to provide you with the directions needed.

Many of our students have a knowledge deficit. That fact informs our work with all our students. It provides challenges and opportunities. Our Governor and our Education Commissioner have identified a big goal for Massachusetts - close the achievement gap at third grade. Nell Duke, Joan Kelley, and others at Harvard have researched this idea and have recently published, Turning the page: Refocusing Massachusetts for reading success strategies for improving children's language and literacy development, birth to age 9 (June, 2010). You may retrieve the document at It makes the point that early experiences for our youngest learners set the stage for all future learning success and that those experiences must include good language and knowledge development.

Implications for our teaching, especially at the earliest grades, compel us to find out what our learners really know - build on that and fill in the kinds of gaps that will impede knowledge development. Give students lots of opportunities to use language. They do not own the understanding of a concept until they have used the word for it many, many times and done so appropriately. Therefore they need lots of guidance as they use words for concepts. They may learn from experiences like field trips, or virtual field trips - handling artifacts or viewing videos associated with ideas or places. They may also learn from deep examination of text - reading with an adult who is demonstrating the thinking that is required to read and understand deeply. They may learn from braod reading about a topic, the chance to become a mini-expert on something. By four years old, my little nephew was an expert on all kinds of heavy equipment. It was amazing to hear him use a term like excavator as naturally as he did ice cream. Of course, whenever I refer to reading I also mean having someone read to the learner.

None of these instructional activities is new, however, purposeful use of them with learners who may already have a knowledge deficit may require some new strategies in early education programs as well as in our primary grades. In Turning the Page, we are reminded again about the importance of building oral language, vocabualry, and concept development from the earliest years. These are the building blocks of all learning success and those who teach our youngest learners should be held in our greatest esteem. Thank you all for your dedication to your learners' ultimate successes!