Misreading Cause and Effect in Literacy Instruction: Vocabulary Edition

A former student of mine in teacher education, who was an English major and is in her third year of teaching, excitedly shared with me that her high school English students have spontaneously begun maintaining a vocabulary list.

What is interesting about this vocabulary list? Students are cataloguing the words they are learning simply by hearing this teacher use the language of a highly literate and well-educated person.

Marakoff word wall

Word wall created and maintained by students at Travelers Rest High School (South Carolina).

I take no credit for this, but this real-world, spontaneous, and rich environment for literacy growth does reflect (although in a more effective way) what I share with my teacher candidates about my 18 years teaching high school English.

Eventually, I ended the practice in my English department of issuing grammar textbooks and vocabulary workbooks to all students. Teachers were given sets of both and allowed to use as they pleased. In my classes, neither were used in any way.

As the example above from my former student’s class shows, I would model for my students how to discuss literature (texts), films, and popular music, often restating their comments in more sophisticated and complex ways.

Gradually, and spontaneously, my students began to mimic the language and terminology in their discussions and writing.

Coincidentally, my former student’s excitement over her students’ vocabulary activities preceded by a couple days a post on NCTE Connects asking about effective vocabulary instruction. I immediately responded:

Like grammar instruction, vocabulary instruction is deeply misguided when it is in isolation and vocabulary-for-vocabulary’s sake. People are confused and tend to invert erroneously what people with high literacy and large vocabularies mean. Vocabulary is a consequence of rich and extended literacy experiences; cramming vocabulary INTO students is not how you make someone highly literate. In short, if you care about vocabulary, reduce dramatically time and energy spent on vocabulary instruction and focus on rich literacy experiences, notably reading by choice and vibrant discussion. One early-career teacher I know has witnessed her students initiating a vocabulary list of words she teaches them simply through her own expression (her talking to the classes and students); they hear new words almost daily, ask her about them, and are engaged in authentic vocabulary attainment. Also fyi: Power of Common Core to Reshape Vocabulary Instruction Reaches Back to 1944!

This comment is brief so I want to elaborate on some of the key points.

First, the traditional urge to teach literacy skills—grammar, mechanics, usage, and vocabulary, for example—in isolation and sequentially to build toward some ideal whole is deeply engrained but also deeply flawed.

I find this to be the result of uncritical assumptions about the power and effectiveness of analysis. Education has embraced a truism that likely isn’t true: working from part to whole is easier and better for all learning.

How many of us have uttered or been told, kindly, “Let me break this down for you”?

Let me pause here and ask you to do a thought experiment (or maybe just focus on a very specific memory).

Have you ever purchased something you had to assemble? Furniture, a swing set, the hellscape that is anything from Little Tikes?

These items come with detailed instructions, guiding you from part to whole to construct whatever you have purchased. Have you ever been compelled to dutifully follow those directions, laying out the parts as directed and then meticulously beginning your project?

And do you recall that moment when you were mostly lost because you couldn’t really decipher the directions? What did you do? Maybe you grabbed the box and began comparing your Frankenstein’s monster scattered on the floor with the whole thing depicted in the picture on the box?

This urge, some brain research suggests, may be rooted in that only about 1 in 4 people are predisposed to part-to-whole thinking—while 3 in 4 of us work naturally whole-to-part*.

Here is a powerful example of how norms and assumptions can create ineffective practices. Literacy instruction may not be more efficient or effective for most of our students in traditional approaches grounded in skills instruction because literacy is wholistic.

Next, this flawed set of assumptions is also driven by flipping—and misreading—cause and effect in literacy growth.

Yes, highly literate people and sophisticated uses of language are often characterized, for example, by large and complex vocabularies. However, this characteristic is an outcome, an effect.

The mistake too many make in literacy instruction is viewing targeted vocabulary expansion as a cause for rich literacy; thus, extensive vocabulary lists, workbooks, and tests (including nearly fanatical instruction in prefixes, root words, and suffixes) that waste time and energy better spent in the real cause of literacy growth—rich literacy experiences such as reading often and deeply by choice and having complex discussions grounded in those rich experiences with a wide variety of texts.

Here is a relatively simple and more accurate truism, then: A large and nimble vocabulary is an effect of rich literacy experiences—not the cause of literacy development.

So here is a final thought experiment: Imagine taking those vocabulary workbooks out of your students’ hands (and backpacks) and then lead them to the school library, introducing them to the greatest vocabulary books available lining the shelves all around them.

* My argument about the relationship between part and whole, after almost four decades of teaching and spending much of that studying intently the research on literacy acquisition and growth, is that part and whole are symbiotic, working together in ways that defy a linear/sequential model. So I am not really rejecting part-to-whole for whole-to-part, but arguing for whole-part-whole-part … something not easy to express in words or a diagram.


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  1. Pingback: P. L. Thomas, Misreading Cause and Effect in Literacy Instruction: Vocabulary Edition | NAAE – National Association of Advisers in English

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