For two years, I've suspected that vocabulary is at the root of our issues for many of our kiddos, but vocabulary is such a vast and general topic, and I'd never been satisfied with any assessment that I'd seen for vocabulary. As it currently stands, there's the most commonly accepted Three-Tier Model for reading vocabulary: Tier 1 vocabulary (sight words), Tier 2 vocabulary (academic vocabulary), and Tier 3 vocabulary (content-area vocabulary). Project CRISS's fourth edition manual now includes a Four-Level Model that, in no way, aligns with the Tiers, but the tiers would absolutely fit into the four levels (mostly academic and/or content-specific vocabulary). Level 1 critical words are words that must be pre-taught before reading. Level 2 words are important but do not require a lot of pre-teaching time. The third level are words that are important, but they are clear in the text and do not require preteaching. Finally, level 4 words are words that are not necessary to be taught to students before, during, or after. As an educator, I make automatic assumptions that vocabulary-building means words that you read, right? Well, after this week I have begun to wonder if maybe I had it all wrong from the beginning.
With all of these categories and ways to approach vocabulary, why do we struggle so much once we hit this roadblock in reading? We seem to have all of the answers for phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency, but yet when it comes to vocabulary - the answers come in all shapes and sizes, and yet none seem to be fitting for so many of our middle schoolers. Most of us skip considering vocabulary as a major issue because we assume that we are covering it when we teach content or literature-specific words, and when our kiddos test below level in comprehension, we push comprehension strategies, not vocabulary (in my case because I thought I had already covered it). But what happens when you have a student who started life speaking a different language (in the case of most of our ELLs - Spanish)? Maybe she began learning English at the age of six. Imagine all of those important first-words that she missed and then had to learn! How many years do you think it takes to catch up in a new language? And how does that impact her at the age of thirteen? Research tells us that each year our students absorb thousands of new words, but what if you don't start learning them until age six or seven?
So a few months back I remembered an assessment from my graduate work in reading that I wanted to try - one that targets oral vocabulary, specifically. Although I was unable to get my hands on that specific assessment (the Peabody), our speech pathologist had something very similar for both receptive and expressive vocabulary. I spent some time skimming through these two assessments and decided to give them a shot with one of our eighth graders (let's call him Tito) who has been through just about every Tier 2 intervention we offer. At this point in the year, I begin to panic when nothing is working because I know that my time is limited with our almost-freshmen, and I need to act quickly to pinpoint a solution.
What I found did not surprise me one bit with this kiddo, and my former hypothesis that oral vocabulary is at the root of many of our English Language Learners' reading struggles sprung to life again with all sorts of questions attached to it. Tito's scores on both the receptive and expressive vocabulary tests were in the very low average and below average range. During the receptive vocabulary testing (where he had to identify pictures that best matched the words that I gave him), his responses came quickly. However, the expressive vocabulary assessment was almost painful - he took so much time trying to formulate words for the pictures that at one point I wondered if he had forgotten that he was supposed to give an answer! In several instances he finally gave up and said, "I don't really know." Also, at times when the answers were incorrect, Tito's response was a short phrase description of the actual word. It was obvious he was trying his best to express himself correctly every time.
I then started to formulate a list of questions that I will be pondering over the next few months:
- What can I do, as a reading specialist, to help close the gap for these ELLs who fall under the RtI umbrella? It is my responsibility to "catch them up" in reading, and yet I'm not trained to develop tens of thousands of missing pieces in oral vocabulary. This is the most loaded question and very general, so then I started to get specific.
- Will testing more of our ELLs produce the same information?
- How do these gaps effect their performance in their content area classes?
- What can I do to communicate this information to our staff?
- How can I support our students who are lacking in oral and aural vocabulary so that they can be more successful?
- What strategies work best for middle level students who have significant gaps in expressive and receptive vocabulary?
- Within the confines of our current schedule, when can we work on these gaps?
- How can my speech path (who is AWESOME, by the way) and I work together to make a plan, even though she is tied mostly to her students with IEPs?
- Who else can help? (I have already talked to our speech pathologist who gave me some ideas, a bilingual reading specialist, and gotten an email from a former colleague who is hoping to help me use some resources to which she has access, and I'm super excited about all of it!)
- At what point do I stop digging? Because I'm exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. Although the screeners are just screeners, so are our comprehension, fluency, and phonics screeners - but you have to start somewhere, and the fact that both of Tito's tests came out just a few points from each other tells me that we do, indeed, have a problem.
For now, friends, the next time you stand in front of your class and register that you have ten students who appear to have zoned off, take a moment to evaluate how you speak to your class. The trick is to support them all without "dumbing it down". The last thing we want to do is to stop exposing them to rich academic vocabulary, but know that if you do that without rephrasing and supporting, many of your kiddos may not have the skills to even understand the words that come out of your mouth. A few years back I had this exact conversation with a respected social studies colleague who admitted that she hadn't considered that her vocabulary choice when instructing her students would impact their performance in class. Also, we often think that if we read the text to our kiddos it will make a difference (and it sometimes does!), but imagine trying to keep up with an instructor who spoke to you in words so difficult that you often couldn't understand him, no matter what strategies you used. What would you do? I know what I would do, and it certainly wouldn't be to pay more attention and take more notes. And yet this is often the answer just about every student gives when we ask them what they think they can do to improve themselves - even those who struggle due to language . . .