Thursday, August 22, 2013

August 23 CRISS Crumble - Choose Your Words Carefully

Welcome back, friends! This week has been one of adjustment for both students and staff as we move into another year of change, but I have already begun to see glimpses of normalcy throughout the day. By the end of next week, this place will be radiating with the routine hum of learning, and things will settle down.

So what is on the plate for our first Crumble, you ask?  Vocabulary is my focus for our students this year. Every year at the end of the year when we take a look at scores, we shake our heads and say, "I wish there was something more we can do for these kids to help build their vocabularies." But then we leave, hoping something will miraculously come to us (perhaps in a vision induced by overexposure to the sun) over the summer, and by the time we are back into the routine of things here at school in the fall, that wish is forgotten, only to be dredged up again in May. Please tell me that I'm not the only nerd who has this wish every year AND who thinks about it periodically over the summer!

A large percentage of our student population lacks basic academic vocabulary – plain and simple. A few years back I had an eighth grade student (formerly bilingual, but transitioned in fourth grade) whose social studies teacher reported that he "just didn't care" and refused to do the work. After meeting with this student a few times and just listening to him speak, it dawned on me how often I had to either repeat what I said to him or reword entire sentences until he understood what I had said or asked. If I had to do this with him one-on-one, imagine how he felt in a class filled with thirty students and a teacher who couldn't monitor his comprehension every second! So I asked the teacher to reflect upon her presentation style. How did she speak to the students? Her response was, "As adults." But my real question is - what kind of adults? Did she speak to them as if they were all adults who had a rich literate background like she did as a child? Or did she speak to them as if she herself had a rich literate background, but with an understanding that her students may need clarification on basic academic conversations due to lack of vocabulary? Her response was simply raised eyebrows and an, "Ohhhhhhh! Aha!"

To break it down for you, there are three tiers of vocabulary (and many definitions of these tiers, depending on who you ask):
  • Tier 1 – basic vocabulary and acquired through every day speech
  • Tier 2 – high frequency, academic / multiple-meaning words that appear across all types of text
  • Tier 3 – low frequency, domain-specific / content-specific words often termed “vocabulary words” in content areas
Most of our kiddos have a good handle on how to speak to each other using Tier 1 vocabulary (some a little too much!). And we are doing a pretty decent job of exposing them to Tier 3 - but we assume that they can absorb what we are saying in front of our classroom using our Tier 2 words. This is not always the case. Words that we take for granted are being thrown out at our students without even realizing the damage we could be doing by not supporting our own rich use of vocabulary. In this paragraph alone there are probably a dozen or more words that have multiple meanings and would confuse even some of our hardest working strugglers. Words like handle, decent, exposing, assume, absorb, granted, and rich all have double meanings and make the heads of our English language learners spin like tops! And heaven forbid you use an idiomatic phrase (such as make your head spin) with them! They'd go off the deep end for sure. I really need to stop.

The point is, friends, that we need to choose our words carefully. Am I saying that we need to simplify how we say things for our students and stay away from using words that may challenge our kiddos? Heavens, no! In fact, I encourage the use of fancy words! But know that the more you use them, the more you will need to rephrase, check for understanding, illustrate, model, and allow for processing before you move on.

So, create a quiz with words in parenthesis near tough Tier 2 words where you think a student might trip up. Know that your text books are not only full of your content-area vocabulary, but they are also very heavily loaded with Tier 2 words that may confuse your students as well. Teaching Tier 2 words as vocabulary doesn't necessarily make sense in a science or social studies class, but don't assume that your kiddos are going to be able to understand the text book without a lot of support. Know that part of the job that I do at school is to help you service these students, not just in their language arts classes, but across the curriculum, and I am certainly willing to do so. And enjoy reflecting on your own vocabularies over the next week, because I know you will.

Have a fabulous first weekend of the school year.  You deserve it!

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