“Words are a narcotic for you,” a colleague quipped when I’d rounded the corner and sprinted into my 14th email lap, wordsmithing the subtitle of a book I’d just edited for Corwin Literacy’s spring list. And she’s correct—I love language. One reason I’ve been a literacy editor all these years is that it’s given me the chance to help teachers instill in their students a disposition and a skill set for knowing words—because knowing words is knowing how to think.
No matter how we re-contour definitions of literacy, vocabulary is the DNA encoding each cell of our thinking, feeling, speaking, reading, and writing about a topic or concept. And the more words we know, the more nuanced our thinking is, which is profound, when you think about it. (Not to mention the fun of getting at the subtleties of cultures by mulling words like the French sympathique or the German word Schadenfreude, two words that have no real equivalent in English). Okay, okay, I’m getting carried away, so here’s my point: in our quest to raise students’ engagement and achievement, we have to do a major rethink on vocabulary instruction, because the weekly word lists are getting us nowhere.
Fortuitously, there are a handful of newly released Corwin Literacy titles to the rescue:
Lessons & Units for Closer Reading by Nancy Boyles, Vocabulary Is Comprehension by Laura Robb, and Academic Moves for College and Career Readiness by Jim Burke and Barry Gilmore. Each of these books nudges teachers to bring word work into the teaching day in these three important ways:
Words are concepts: “Words are not just words….What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” (Adams, 2009). By fourth grade, our students meet up with texts that cannot be understood unless a plethora of concepts are understood. Nancy Boyles helps student rise to this challenge by equipping them with bookmarks that list four questions readers ask themselves, one of which is, “Are they any hard or important words?” During close reading lessons, she models how to notice which ones they are, and continually makes students aware that it is their job as readers to notice the “words that make you sit up.” The take away: Students can’t skip over words that intimidate them.
Words are stealth bombs of meaning: Poets, novelists, nonfiction authors, and speech writers may just be the most potent vocabulary instructors of all, asserts Laura Robb. Use high-quality, engaging texts as the basis for lessons, and embed vocabulary instruction within meaningful explorations of these gorgeously crafted pieces, whose every word is chosen by the author to pack a wallop of meaning, and thus needs attention. Laura reminds us that reading aloud daily will go a long way to exposing students to a volume of words. She’s also a big proponent of teaching Greek and Latin roots, for these make up 90% of the words used in science and technology. The take away: Roots have a lot to do with college and career readiness!
Words are intellectual moves. Jim Burke and Barry Gilmore come at the connection between vocabulary acquisition and college and career-readiness from a smart, sharp angle in their book. They provide a framework for making instruction more potent by targeting the school-task category of academic vocabulary (Beck, McKeown, Kucan, 2002). They focus on guiding students to deeply know—and execute—these 15 mental moves: analyze, argue, compare/contrast, describe, determine, develop, evaluate, explain, imagine, integrate, interpret, organize, summarize, support, transform. The take away: These terms are the moves that make the mind work, and if the work we do it school is built more tightly around them, students acquire literary and general academic vocabulary in the process of this high-level thinking.