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Posted at 2:20 PM ET, 04/25/2010

New strategy to teach vocabulary -- Viadero

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Debra Viadero, an associate editor of Education Week and author of a blog called Inside School Research.

By Debra Viadero
When students hit the middle grades, and begin reading more textbook material and other sorts of reference documents, the going gets tough fast.

Researchers think one reason for students’ newfound difficulties with reading comprehension may be the academic language that students encounter as they read these texts in their math, social studies, and science classes.

Unlike fiction, which sounds a lot like the words kids hear at home and on the playground, this nonfiction material often contains more sophisticated sentence constructions and unfamiliar words. Kids get tripped up, for example, on words such as “deduce” or “notwithstanding” or interpret a phrase like ‘“gross domestic product” to mean something icky that is found in the home.

As one Boston middle school teacher put it, “They’ll think they know the definition of the word. They’ll apply what they know, but they won’t actually challenge themselves.”

In the current issue of the journal Science, though, Harvard Graduate School of Education scholar Catherine E. Snow describes one approach that researchers have developed specifically to address that problem. Snow is part of a nonprofit research collaborative called the Strategic Education Research Partnership, which works directly with schools to come up with research-based solutions to problems that teachers encounter in real classrooms.

Informed by Boston teachers to middle school students’ difficulties with academic language, Snow and her colleagues developed a strategy for directly teaching all-purpose academic words to middle school students.

The idea is to embed the tricky words in provocative texts for use in math, science, social studies, and English classes.

One week students might read an essay on whether junk food ought to be banned in schools and another week the topic might be whether to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Students spend the rest of the week debating and discussing the topics and engaging in other carefully constructed activities in which the target words are embedded.

The aim is to teach the vocabulary without adding a lot of time to teachers’ lessons or boring students with dry lists of words.

Preliminary findings from schools testing out the strategy in Boston show that after 12 weeks of lessons, students who took part in the program scored as well on vocabulary tests as nonparticipating students who were two years older, Snow has said. And the strategy seems to work particularly well with students who are new to the English language, many of whom may pick up spoken language readily but struggle with schoolwork.

“It is unrealistic to expect all middle- or high school students to become proficient producers of academic language,” Snow writes in the Science essay. “Students must be able to read texts that use these features if they are to become independent learners of science or social studies.”

As much as I dislike reading the stilted language and $10 words in the research studies I come across, I have to admit that she’s right.

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By Valerie Strauss  | April 25, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  Reading, Research  | Tags:  Catherine Snow, Harvard research, research, teaching vocabulary, vocabulary  
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