In the previous two columns, we focused on phonics, sight-reading, comprehension and fluency. While phonics and sight-reading are different approaches to reading instruction, comprehension and fluency measure the level at which a student reads. This column is focused on two of the building blocks of reading: vocabulary and spelling. Often, vocabulary and spelling are seen as divorced from successful reading, but in reality, they go hand in hand with proficient reading.
Consider for example, the difference between a fifth grader and an twelfth grader reading from the first few lines of the Declaration of Independence:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
You can imagine that the fifth grader might only stumble over the pronunciation of two or three words, such as “impel” and “unalienable.” However, if you asked that fifth grader what the passage meant without giving any definitions, she would probably look at you with a blank stare, not having comprehended more than a few words. She might say something like, “Um, something about nature. And people all being equal.” In contrast, though the twelfth grader might not use words like “self-evident” or “dissolve” on a daily basis, she would almost certainly be able to give you a working definition of the passage. This difference illustrates the importance of reading. Yes, a child could learn to read without understanding any of the words she is reading, but then, she might as well be reading a foreign language. So, why is vocabulary so important?
Scholastic’s Reading Research Network explains the crucial importance of vocabulary:
As seen with the fifth grader and the twelfth grader, comprehension improves when you know what words mean (after all, knowing what things mean is the definition of comprehension). Since fluent comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading, understanding what words mean cannot be emphasized enough.
Words are the currency of communication. The more words you know, the more you are able to communicate in all forms of interactions: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
Parents often admonish their children, “Use your words. I can’t understand you if you don’t explain yourself to me.” When children and adolescents improve their vocabulary, their social competence and confidence grows.
There are lots of different ways to improve vocabulary knowledge. The method that most indirectly, yet most efficiently improves vocabulary is reading. Read to your children from a young age, and once they are old enough encourage them to read on their own. Try to be available to answer their questions while they are reading – and if you don’t know the word – pull out a dictionary and learn something new together!
Andrew Biemiller, the former director of the master’s program in child study and education at the University of Toronto, recently spoke at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education about the importance of teaching vocabulary in the classroom. His solution to solving what he believes to be a vocabulary gap: “by teaching vocabulary–10 and 12 word meanings a week in the primary grades—children will be able to identify more words and meanings as they get older.” His research indicates that with 30 minutes of instruction a day, a child can begin to fill the vocabulary gap that currently exists.
At home, children can play “matching” games with vocabulary. Older children can create their own versions of the game, using pairs of cards with words and their definitions. This way, they choose which words they want to learn and are interesting to them. Then, together with friends or siblings who are similar ages, they can turn learning vocabulary into a game. Younger children can do this with pictures and words, setting the stage for reading and vocabulary usage.
In the Era of Computers, Who Needs to Spell?
J. Richard Gentry, an expert on spelling education, explains why spelling is so important even in the age of computers and software that automatically checks our spelling. If you ask a reading specialist what children need in order to read successfully, his or her answer would be knowledge of the alphabet and phonemic awareness (the ability to identify that certain letters correspond to certain sounds). In other words, kindergarten and first grade spelling! Obviously, teaching spelling is only a small part of literacy instruction. However, in past years, spelling instruction has fallen out of favor.