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Adventures in Vocabulary

Last week, some parents spontaneously came to see me about their child, "Joe." Joe is extremely diligent and cooperative. His assignments are thoughtfully written, he always shows up on time, and he seldom disrupts class. I told the parents that I had very few critiques of Joe's work habits, and admitted that I was actually surprised to see them, given that he's generally a top performer in his class. (I probably shouldn't have been surprised--Joe's academic success is undoubtedly due in part to his parents' high level of involvement in his education. More on this in a second.)

It all seemed like it was going well until his father said, "Joe doesn't understand the book. He's lost in class."

I was surprised; Joe's work had not given any indication of misunderstanding, and Joe had neither asked questions nor come to my 7th period tutoring session. Then again, as I told the father, Lord of the Flies is a challenging book. I explained that a lot of kids were struggling with it, and that I'd been going over important parts of the story in class, even reading sections aloud in order to check for comprehension.

"No," his father said. "It's not the story. He doesn't understand the words in the book. I want you to check every day to make sure he knows the words."

This assertion caused me to feel a bit guilty. Since the beginning of the year, I'd been meaning to institute a daily vocabulary exercise, but I'd gotten so caught up with establishing other routines--specific teams for group and pair-work, creation of portfolios, peer-revision practices--that I hadn't really done as much concrete vocabulary study as I'd been planning.

So, as we say in the South, I ate crow. "I hear what you're saying," I told the father. "I'll be instituting vocabulary study every day from now on." And that's exactly what happened: Today, I spent the better part of 10 minutes having the kids correctly pronounce the words "vicissitudes" and "declivities" and discussing how they'd be used in conversation. My teacher-friend Danny had assured me that the kids would like this type of simple vocabulary lesson, and I didn't believe him--but he was right. Sometimes you just don't need to reinvent the wheel.

However, having recovered from my embarrassment upon meeting with Joe's father, I now wish I had told him that he too could affect his son's understanding of vocabulary words. A recent article in the New York Times reported on disparities of vocabulary exposure across the socio-economic spectrum--both in terms of the complexity of words a child is exposed to, and the sheer number. The article argued for a system in which more money is spent on preschool and head-start programs, which would allow children from lower-income families to make gains in vocabulary that would ideally close the gap between them and their higher-income peers.

However, even in adolescence, it's not too late. Parents can do simple things like making dictionaries available to their children, as I wish I'd exhorted this father to do. Moreover, as I'll be telling all the parents in a couple of weeks at Parent-Teacher Night, nothing fosters reading comprehension like...more reading. No amount of vocabulary lessons in school, however entertaining I might be able to make them, can ever surpass the gains a child makes from a steady diet of reading at home.

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