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  Let’s imagine there are two schools for training architects and carpenters.  In the first school, students are given access to every construction material you could possibly need—bricks, stone, glass, steel girders.  In the other school, students are forced to make do with sticks and masking tape.   Would it come as any surprise that students who graduated from the first school were equipped to design magnificent houses and monuments, while the students from the second school struggled to make anything beyond rudimentary huts?
   Yet we find ourselves today in the middle of a great educational debate where one side—the reformers—is perpetually outraged that every student is not producing his or her own Parthenon or Taj Mahal.  They offer one solution after the next—high stakes testing, merit pay, firing teachers, closing schools—without ever addressing the core issue.  For our lowest performing students, no one is asking:  where are the bricks?
   The bricks I am talking about are not made of concrete or mortar, of course.  Our students need something far sturdier, something not subject to cracking.  Children require something substantial on which they can build the foundation of learning.  The bricks they need are made of words.  It is vocabulary, as much as anything else, that marks the difference between struggling and successful students in America’s schools.  Until we begin to address this issue, all of our talk about fixing our education system is nothing but a blueprint for failure.
   There is a great deal of research that shows the relationship between vocabulary levels and academic achievement.  Three professors from the University of Pittsburgh—Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan—have done a remarkable job of explaining the implications of this data in a book called Bringing Words to Life.  The results of their research are stark:  successful third-grade students may have vocabularies equal to low-performing 12th graders.  Successful high school seniors know four times as many words as their lower-performing peers.  
   It should come as no surprise that there is a strong correlation between a student’s vocabulary and a student’s socioeconomic background.  Children coming from wealthier families tend to have larger vocabularies and a better grasp of the intricacies of the English language.  These children are able to read challenging texts from an early age.  They can gather information and process complex ideas while their peers with lower vocabularies are struggling to comprehend the words on the page.  This vocabulary gap helps to explain why many children from poor communities tend to fall behind in the third grade:  they simply cannot keep pace with more challenging assignments because they literally cannot understand what they are reading.
   The implications are clear.  Many if not most struggling students would benefit from rich vocabulary instruction.  They need a massive infusion of words.  They need the bricks to build their own learning, year by year, floor by floor, until finally they can join their more successful peers in the penthouse of knowledge.  
   Unfortunately, the people in charge of designing the educational curriculum have a different theory of design.  There is an almost magical form of thinking going on—from the speeches of Michelle Rhee to the policies of Arne Duncan.  The belief—crystallized in the Common Core Standards—is that all students, regardless of their circumstances, should be able to make sophisticated readings of complex texts, moving along at more-or-less the same rate, from grade to grade.  Each year standardized tests will measure the results and each year we will be asked to share in the outrage that those students trapped the school of sticks and masking tape aren’t producing marble mansions.
   A true school reform would involve creating a more flexible curriculum, one designed to meet the needs of students with low vocabularies.  There are many different ways of accomplishing this.  For some children, all that would be required are additional vocabulary sessions added to their daily schedules.  But for many children, there would probably need to be a completely different set of lessons that focused on building vocabulary and language skills—a sequence of instruction that would move more slowly than the common core standards currently require, a curriculum that meets true learning needs.   Schools would need to provide rich instruction at a student’s actual reading level, rather than force students to struggle with arbitrarily-defined “grade-level” texts.
   There are two sets of concerns that must be addressed if schools were to restructure the syllabus in this manner.  One is legitimate and the other is purely political.  The legitimate concern is that a vocabulary-enrichment curriculum could become a kind of dumping ground for poor black and Hispanic students, a way of keeping them “off-the-books.”  It will be imperative that a vocabulary enrichment curriculum is not designed as some kind of separate dumbed-down path to a worthless diploma.  There would have to be a carefully designed time-frame for this kind of program, a clear-cut route back to grade-level goals.  The purpose of such a curriculum is not to avoid but to prepare students for rigorous learning.  Parents and educational advocates would have to be vigilant on this count.  
   The purely political concern would come from the reformers, who would insist that all children can learn at the same pace and that any other approach to education is nothing but the soft bigotry of low expectations.  But this insistence is—and has always been--a kind of warped egalitarianism.  Instead of addressing the different needs of each child, the reformers try to pretend that these differences either don’t exist or don’t matter.  In the name of success, they are damning another generation of students to a cycle of failure.  For too long the education debates have been dominated by heat instead of light:  there are plenty of angry accusations about why our children are not learning but few discussions about what they should learn and how they can do it.
   While I cannot pretend that vocabulary-building is the one true solution to the many vexing problems of education in America, I can say that my own work in rigorous vocabulary instruction for elementary school students has shown promising results.  If nothing else, schools should be allowed to experiment, to see if this kind of instruction can help struggling students—maybe not today, maybe not in time for the tests, maybe not quickly enough to earn a commendation in the newspapers.  But, perhaps, at the end of years of long hard work, a vocabulary-based approach to learning with leave struggling students with all the tools they need to build not just a shack in the wilderness but a magnificent bridge to a lifetime of success.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Is we building yet? (0+ / 0-)

    Nice diary, PC. Thanks!

  •  I've said for years, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    chimene

    teachers in many schools across the country are tasked with making bricks without straw.

  •  Real reform would address the systemic issues (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    chimene

    instead of offering authoritarian, top-down reform imposed by those who know nothing of the realities facing teachers and their students from ALL socio-economic background and intellectual abilities.  It would mirror much of what Finland has done.  However, that model does not reinforce elitist, corporatist mentality.

    Robber Baron "ReTHUGisms": John D. Rockefeller -"The way to make money is to buy when blood is running in the streets"; Jay Gould -"I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

    by ranton on Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 06:24:53 PM PST

  •  I was in a classroom once (0+ / 0-)

    and sat with a child who was stumped on a matching exercise because he didn't know the meaning of the word "easel". Rather than keep going, he gave up, dispirited.

    I helped him and I think I made a difference. But it was disheartening to see a 3rd grader not know what an easel was, and not be able to cope with the lack.

    The difference in vocabulary of the kids is one of the largest reflections of their socioeconomic status and the education level of their parents.

    But to me the most depressing reality is that some kids arrive in kindergarten not knowing their colors - in any language. I do not honestly know how it is possible for that to happen.

    Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

    by elfling on Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 10:21:12 PM PST

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