Vocabulary Learning

There’s been at least two articles recently on the SAT verbal drop in scores over the last 40 years. One article notes that verbal scores are associated with communication skills, learning, and holding a job. Indeed verbal skills are important, I certainly think they are anyway, it’s the focus of my research. One of the problems that Hirsch notes in this article is that this drop is associated with changes in curriculum. Specifically, a shift from a focus on deep knowing and interacting with course content, to what he calls a “skills-based” approach to learning. I think kids need both skills and deep interaction with content (e.g., literature) that can help children build verbal skills. An important thing he notes is that verbal skills can be taught.

NPR also had a story on the verbal SAT drop in scores. Of particular concern is the increasing gap between White students and Latino and African American students. Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former
governor of West Virginia is quoted as saying that there’s still a lot more to do in K-12 schooling.

I think that these two articles point out an important fact that verbal skills can be taught. And there is plenty of research that demonstrates ways that it can be done. I’ve been involved in a series of studies looking at how preschool-age, Head Start children. The focus of the first two studies was on differentiation of children with and without language impairment. But, if we look at the children with typical development, we can see that as a group they scored about two standard deviations below the normative mean. In the first study, we were able to increase children’s single word vocabulary scores by about 1 standard deviation after only two sessions. We replicated these findings in another, subsequent study while adding a control group which we had not done in the original study. In a third study, we compared three methods of teaching word learning. Across these three studies, we were able to help children from low SES backgrounds make significant, robust changes in their ability to name pictures. The changes came with very short-term intervention that focused on meta-cognitive skills related to naming (2 to 3, 20 minute sessions). I think that this implies that these kinds of interventions can be (and should be) incorporated into school curricula.

Other studies such as those done by Silverman demonstrate the effectiveness of these kinds of analytical approaches to teaching vocabulary to children. In all, the data seem to show that there are directions we can go in and that these are pretty effective. If we can make 1 SD changes in just 40 minutes, imagine what one could do over the course of a year!

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