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Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Vocabulary, worth talking about

October 10, 2012

I have a good friend with a 7 month old daughter. Through his video clips on Facebook, I have watched E react to new toys, try all sorts of new foods, and learn to sit up. Around our house, we're way past soft foods and teethers, so I watch with joy as E happily gums spoonfuls of bananas and sweet potato. But every time I watch, I'm struck by the silence. There are no adult sounds, just the occasional grunt or gurgle from baby E. When I finally asked E's Mom and Dad about the silence, it turns out to be plain 'ol stage fright — Mom and Dad are too shy to have their voice heard on video.

For those of us who worry, study and think about literacy development, we know the power of conversation and talk. We know about the heartbreaking 30 million word gap by age 3 (Hart & Risley) and take pains to share what we know with others, even if it's at inopportune times.

Vocabulary is back on the front burner this week with Before a Test, a Poverty of Words from the NY Times. Bellafante writes about the topic through the lens of middle-schoolers in New York preparing for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, the multiple-choice exam used "as the sole metric for entrance into some of New York City's elite public high schools." Bellafante suggests that studying for such an exam may be too little too late, citing E.D. Hirsch's belief that "there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success." Middle schoolers who did not have the benefit of talkative adults using interesting words will have a much harder time on the test.

An interesting follow up to Bellafante's piece is Demographics Isn't Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny from the Core Knowledge blog. Pondiscio, the author, thankfully has two messages: good conversation can happen in any home, not just affluent ones. And that skill and drill (and kill) with vocabulary worksheets is not the answer. The answer lies within our frequent conversations filled with interesting words. And I would add "even if the camera is rolling."


I must agree with the information in your post. I have two children. The first child I had I was not a working mother and so I had a lot of time to spend with her alone and so I spoke to her a lot during the day. The teachers in her kindergarten had very little o do with how well she did and continues to do in later years. My second child did not have this experience sa much as the first, since I became a working mother and I am convinced that this contributed to him not having the level of success my first child has. I am particularly drwan to the comment you made about skill and drill with vocabulary sheets. I am a teacher and sad to say I have used that strategy in my teaching experience. However I am happy to say today I know better. Being able to identify words is good but not good enough, which is what drilling does. Recently I had the privilege of learning important principles to developing children's vocabulary. Some of these I wish to share. 1. Building Background*Take them on trips* Let them work on projects*Conduct experiments*Use DVD TV CD After building background students should be allowed talk over their experiences.2. Relating vocabulary to backgroundTo teach the word compliment teacher talk about nice things give a student a compliment.3. Building RelationshipsShow students how words are related to each other. For example helping children to understand the relationship between the words biography and accomplishment4. Developing depth of meaningUse words in context and allow students to do so too.In closing I must add that it is important to read and speak to learners in helping to develop their vocabulary and might I add this should be done with learners of all levels of the education system

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