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Teacher question

I recently read an interview that you did. When you talk about kids needing to recognize when they don’t know a word and how to figure it out — did you mean to leave them on their own to do that? When you mention ‘passive scaffolding’ it makes me think you do. I know a lot about vocabulary instruction and my view of passive scaffolding as a first-line technique is pretty dim. Glossaries or dictionaries are frustrating. What kids need is to be able to integrate relevant aspects of word meaning into the context to come up with an understanding of what the sentence means and how it adds to understanding of the text overall. And helping students cultivate that ability is best achieved through teacher-student interactions, questioning and discussion. Am I misunderstanding your views on this?

Shanahan’s response

I believe good vocabulary instruction has five goals: (1) Increase the numbers of words that children know and the richness of their understanding of those words; (2) Build an understanding of morphology (the meaningful parts of words and how words relate and make meaning); (3) Develop an ability to infer or estimate word meaning on the basis of context; (4) Foster an appreciation of diction and awareness of how words convey tone and an author’s attitude; and, (5) To teach students to use dictionaries, glossaries, and thesauruses effectively. A good regime of vocabulary instruction will try to accomplish all of those.

My comments in that interview were focused specifically on goal 3, teaching students to use context to determine the meanings of unknown words that readers may confront in text. My belief is that most reading programs tend to include a handful of context exercises and then undermine those lessons with how they guide reading the rest of the year.

Think about it.

The publisher or teacher tries to anticipate words that students might not know in an upcoming reading selection. This prediction invariably leads to pre-reading lessons aimed at building familiarity with those likely-to-be-unknown words. This makes a certain kind of sense. To the extent that the kids manage to learn the words their reading comprehension of that text should be elevated.

But I don’t think that’s the right goal.

I don’t care how well the students comprehend a story that I’m teaching. At least not initially. I do care about what they learn that will help them to read successfully on their own.

To me that means that those kinds of words should not necessarily be pre-taught.

Someone should take a good look at the text. Can the meanings of any of those words be figured out from context (or from morphological analysis)? If they can be, then those words should not be pre-taught.

We need to give students a chance to deal with such of words in real reading situations.

Think questions – not reading preparation lessons.

If a word’s meaning can be determined from context, the teacher should be prepared with a question that will reveal whether students got it. If they did, that’s great. There’s nothing more to be done.

But if they don’t, then teachers need to take them back to the text and guide their efforts to determine the meaning. In some cases, this might be a demonstration. In other cases, the teacher may point out the key information. In still others, it might be nothing more than a direction to reread the sentence or paragraph.

That’s what I mean by passive scaffolding. The teacher should know what she is trying to teach – she wants the kids to use context to determine word meanings. The students, however — in this kind of lesson — won’t even know which words the teacher has focused on. Their task isn’t to use context, like in a worksheet exercise, but to read the text with comprehension. That’s why I prefer questions about the text rather than questions about the words.

For example, look at the following sentence that I lifted from a fourth-grade text:

When the prairie plants were uprooted, the animals that depended on them lost their food source.

Students, I think, can get the meaning of “uprooted” from the context, the morphology, or a combination of the two. Of course, I can ask students right out, “What does uprooted mean?” Or, “What does the author mean by uprooted?” Those are legitimate vocabulary questions.

However, my preference would be a question like, “What caused the animals to lose their food source?” That is not a direct vocabulary question, but a comprehension question that can only be answered by dealing with the vocabulary.

If the student answers, “Because the prairie plants were uprooted,” then I’ll ask directly about the meaning of that word. Or, if they say, “Because the prairie plants died,” I might ask, what word did the author use to reveal that fact.

The point is to get them to use the vocabulary to make sense of the text and those kinds of questions guide them to think about the word meanings in a comprehension-centric fashion.

Defining words is just one of many skills that one must orchestrate during a successful read. The teacher should only scaffold if the students fail to make sense of what the author was trying to communicate with that word. That’s what makes it passive. The teacher is observing carefully and responding to student behavior, not trying to lead things or to head things off.

That doesn’t mean there is no place for introducing some words prior to reading. Not all words can be kenned through context or morphology, so giving kids a leg up on a challenging text is very reasonable — especially if you think those are valuable words.

That doesn’t mean that there is no place for worksheets or digital exercises for practicing with context or morphology. But students need support in using context and morphology in real reading situations, too. You can’t provide that kind of support if you’re always pre-introducing the words, trying to avoid a problem instead of getting the kids to confront it.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t still teach those words that you had the students deal with through context or morphology. The meaning of those words can be reinforced through direct instruction after the reading.

If I understand your concern:

No, my point was not to suggest that just having kids read would be sufficient to build vocabulary skills. As a student myself, I read a lot, but paid little attention to word meanings. If I didn’t know a word, I just kept rolling. My comprehension didn’t take off until I made a concerted effort to expand my vocabulary — an effort that included being sensitive to unknown words, using context and dictionaries to figure them out, and lots of drill and practice. With that kind of regimen, my reading comprehension soared.

I had to do that on my own.

Our students should have more help than that, including that kind of passive or responsive vocabulary teaching. I think the confusion has to do with the word, “passive.” The lesson is passive from the students’ point of view since no one is going to tell them ahead of time the purpose of the lesson or the words that are the focus of this part of the lesson. But what is passive for the student is highly active for the teacher. She has familiarized herself with the affordances of the text and is going to probe to determine whether the students successfully made use of these affordances to comprehend the text. If not, she is ready to intervene with teaching geared to getting students to address that omission. Her teaching is responsive (perhaps a better description) and, yet, her watchfulness is not that general attentiveness to teachable moments, but a highly focused sensitivity to specific student behaviors in very specific parts of the text.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Related Topics

Comprehension, Vocabulary