Power of Common Core to Reshape Vocabulary Instruction Reaches Back to 1944!

According to Liana Heitin at Education Week [1]:

[S]ome reading experts, including those who helped write the Common Core State Standards [emphasis added], are saying what’s critical about vocabulary instruction is how the words are introduced—and that context is key.

“We’ve known for a long, long time from research that giving students a list of words and asking them to look them up in the dictionary and write a sentence is not an effective way to teach vocabulary,” said Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A better approach, some say, is to have students focus on a topic—anything from the musculatory system to the Great Depression to Greek myths.

“It turns out that learning about the world is a great way to build your vocabulary and knowledge,” said David Liben, a senior content specialist for the literacy team at the New York City-based Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit professional-development group founded by the lead writers of the common-core standards [emphasis added].

But this amazing revolution in vocabulary instruction created by the Common Core is not the much more dramatic story.

It appears the power of Common Core to reshape vocabulary instruction reaches back to 1944, when English educator and former National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) president Lou LaBrant wrote in “The Words They Know”:

There are many causes for our concern. For one, we hear that vocabulary correlates with intelligence; hence, we decide, we should increase vocabulary. At the time of our most trusting interest in objective measurement—the 1920’s—much discussion followed the discovery that on group intelligence tests the single item most highly correlated with the total score, and consequently the best single prediction of intelligence rating, was the vocabulary score. As has been frequent in the history of human thinking, we inferred a causal relation, over-looking the fact that, since both tests were basically language, the results would naturally be similar. We were really only discovering that what we measured as “intelligence” was in large measure the ability to use school vocabulary. Nevertheless the idea persevered, and today many teachers base arguments for teaching vocabulary on the relation it bears to intelligence, although if vocabulary were causal, we should expect to move our low I.Q. pupils into a gifted group by vocabulary drills. (p. 475)

Apparently from consideration of the varied forms which “vocabulary” may take, and the amazing extent of the vocabulary which even the dullest student has, we have a more complicated problem than our exercises and assignments suggest….It is not, however, the number of words alone which is important. It is the depth of meaning. This also comes from experience. (p. 477)

Vocabulary range for a class of English-speaking pupils is therefore so wide as to make futile our selection of any particular list of words for teaching except for specific situations; and the full meaning of a word is so complicated that to teach even a small number thoroughly is a long-term task. (p. 478)

The following suggestions seem to be implied by the findings and observations stated.

1. We can extend vocabulary by providing a wealth of rich experiences: trips, hand work, discussion, reading. The teacher can make sure that words are related to things seen….

2. We can bring into the classroom more personal writing, and more talk about personal experiences, introducing thereby the vocabulary which eludes us, but which needs better understanding and use. So-called “free” writing is excellent for this. …

3. We can take time to expand meanings….

4. We can teach students to learn meanings from context [emphasis added]. This is the natural way. Children learn to talk through hearing words in context, deriving meaning from the situation (other words used, speaker’s tone, objects present, actions which accompany the words)….

5. We can help students judge meanings of words by those previously known….

6. We can undoubtedly teach our students something about the nature of symbols….(pp. 478-479)

…[W]e can teach pupils that words have more than a literal or defined meaning: they carry feeling overtones which make them rich and beautiful as in poetry but often also dangerous and misleading in arguments….We cannot foresee all these needs. There are 750,000 words in English. We can encourage the use of what the student knows, deepen his understanding of the possibilities in a word (poetry is ideal for this), open his eyes to the simple ways for learning new words (context, and, this failing, the dictionary, encyclopedia, history, science book, or other reference), and teach him to respect the word he speaks and writes. The drive to lift his vocabulary will then be his own. (p. 480)

Or Do We Witness Yet More Hokum?

Well, yes, the pose taken in the EdWeek piece above is yet more hokum.

As I have noted, the miracle of “close reading” offered by the marvel that is Common Core is just repackaged New Criticism, and now, the miracle of Common Core and vocabulary instruction is little more than even more evidence that enormous amounts of money, manipulative politicians seeking their own aggrandizement, and an uncritical media are a powerful and dangerous combination (and I made that calculation without the benefit of Common Core math).

If anyone actually cares about effective literacy instruction, and not pandering to fruitless but incessant obsessions with accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, the published works of Lou LaBrant spanning the 1920s into the 1960s offer a wealth of the many ways we have known to foster literacy in students, well before the Common Core architects and advocates were born.

In 1944, after almost four decades as a teacher herself, with almost three decades ahead of her as a teacher as well, LaBrant recognized about deciding what vocabulary to teach students: “We cannot foresee all these needs.”

Her conclusions (in the sexist language of her time) remain a powerful frame today, one that is obscured by the lingering failure of seeking better standards:

There are 750,000 words in English. We can encourage the use of what the student knows, deepen his understanding of the possibilities in a word (poetry [2] is ideal for this), open his eyes to the simple ways for learning new words (context, and, this failing, the dictionary, encyclopedia, history, science book, or other reference), and teach him to respect the word he speaks and writes. The drive to lift his vocabulary will then be his own. (p. 480)

My ongoing coverage of low quality education journalism is not supported in any way by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

[1] Noted at the end of this piece: “Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation*. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.”

Bill Gates Spent More Than $200 Million to Promote Common Core. Here’s Where it Went.

Source: Gates Foundation Photograph: Win McNamee

[2] See In Defense of Poetry: “Oh My Heart” for the likely impact of Common Core on teaching poetry.

4 comments

  1. VanessaVaile

    This is as Orwellian as the title sounds and adds context, especially for anyone who might still think of CCSS as good, even necessary. Maybe it is — for indoctrination and cultivating group think. I also thought of E.D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy and the well documented cultural biases of IQ and ASVAB tests

  2. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Just reading books, lots of books, was how it worked for me. I was a horrible student. I hardly did any of the work assigned in high school and to this day I don’t know how I graduated from HS even with the 0.95 GPA that I had.

    What I was doing when I should have been paying attention in class, doing the class work and homework? I was reading an average of two books a day, and I was a student helper in the library one period a day for four years of high school. The only A’s I earned in HS were from my elective credit working in the library. Most of my grades were D’s so even though I don’t remember, I must have done just enough work to be left alone so I could read. It was easy. I sat in the back row in every class and hid my SF, Fantasy or historical fiction novels by using the class textbook as a cover, nd I don’t remember even one teacher bothering me.

    Of course, now, having been a public school teacher for thirty years (1975-2005), I know that the children who get most of the attention from the teachers are either the straight A students or the children who most at risk children who disrupt the classroom on almost a daily basis. A quiet student sitting in the back of the room with his eyes buried in a book was probably the least of the teachers worries and challenges.

    The magic of gaining a high level of literacy works for most if not all avid readers, and all we have to do is figure out a way to encourage children to read and love reading for the adventures, for fun, for exploration, for discovery, for the thrill. For instance, going on a journey with a Hobbit. I’ve read The Hobbit (grade level 6.6) and the Lord of the Rings three times—grade level equivalent: 8.1 according to Scholastic.com

    Interview With the Vampire (6.8)

    Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (6.9) I read all if not most of her books.

    Tarzan Of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (8.7) I read most if not all of his books

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (8.1)

    In fact, here is a Language Arts Reading List for Accelerated Readers with reading level

    https://sites.google.com/a/aadusd.k12.ca.us/hmiller/my-reading-list

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