Hi friends! This blog is for teachers and families- all for the sheer joy of literacy. When we are enthusiastic about reading and writing our students and our own kids become excited to read and write. I hope that we all can be models for those in our care- how did you show your passion for reading, writing, learning, language, or words today?? It's in those small, daily moments that we teach kids to love literacy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bridging the Widening Vocabulary Gap with TV

I went to the new Jane Eyre movie last night with my mom and sister. I was not much of a reader when I growing up, but for some reason I loved reading Jane Eyre my senior year of high school. I downloaded it onto my Kindle (for free!) when I got home from the movie, and started reading it aloud to my husband. The writing is beautiful (yet complex), using quite sophisticated (and dated) language.

Again, I was not a reader growing up. My mom said that I was a bit behind in learning how to read. I didn't gobble up series books or carry a book around with me as a kid. I was too busy playing, I suppose. Last night I was impressed with my childhood self. How did I comprehend that complex novel? How did I understand all of those words? I guess I did well because my mom used good vocabulary when speaking with me, I usually read some of what was assigned to me in school, I understood concepts well, and I had a lot of books read to me when I was young....and that was just enough to help me get by.

Knowing a lot of words and having the ability to to figure out unknown words is essential to reading well. Many of us are lucky enough to come from homes that know this: Words are spoken purposefully. Words are taught explicitly. Wordplay abounds. But all kids are not so lucky. Even many darn good parents, who want the best for their child in every way possible, don't know about the value of teaching and learning words. And the challenge is, how do we teach kids without a hearty vocabulary enough words once they get to school? How do we catch them up to speed and bridge the vocabulary gap??

I'm in love with this new blog Vocabulogic. It's a treasure trove of valuable resources all about vocabulary, with articles written by the most known and trusted vocabulary researchers. I found an article, Vocabulary for Preschoolers: The Martha Speaks Program (Biemiller), that has some good ideas about bridging this gap.

This article mentions using the Marta Speaks TV to improve students' vocabulary. I checked out the Martha Speaks TV program on PBS, and I'm loving it! Anyone can watch all of the episodes for free online.  Did you catch that? It's free! Hey parents- show these to your preschoolers! Hey teachers- use these as centers in your K-1 classroom! I know I certainly would. I love the way the program teaches vocabulary. The programs are engaging, and are proven to improve kids' vocabulary.

If we want our kids to be good readers, we must help them to build a good vocabulary early on. That's what helped me to be a successful reader, even though I had a rocky start of it.

I'm excited that education folks are finding inventive ways to teach vocabulary to the most needed. However, I also feel like us classroom teachers aren't doing the best job of keeping vocabulary teaching a priority. We need to build kids' vocabulary early on, so that they can be successful readers and learners later on.

Excerpt from the article:
This post is courtesy of Dr. Andrew Biemiller, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto. Andy is an eminent vocabulary researcher and the author of Words Worth Teaching: Closing the Vocabulary.

By the end of the primary grades, English-speaking children with the weakest vocabularies (lowest 25%) are already four years behind those with the largest vocabularies (highest 25%).1  English Language Learners are often even further behind. What can be done to reduce this “gap”? 

Clearly, schools could do more.  The gap widens during the primary grades.  Little vocabulary is taught in kindergarten, grade one, or grade two.  I know, teachers will assure me that they teach a lot of vocabulary.  Maybe 50 or 100 word meanings.  But each year disadvantaged children need to acquire 300 or 400 more meanings than “average” English speaking children.  At present, they usually acquire 300 or 400 fewer meanings in the primary grades! Until now, primary grade educators have left vocabulary development to parents.  So middle class parents have provided lots of language in the normal course of living at home.  Less advantaged homes have provided a lot less.2 

One support for less advantaged children could be television.  Children watch a lot of television.  But to teach vocabulary, we have to do more than assume children will acquire words from exposure.

WGBH in Boston has developed a program intended to support vocabulary development.  They adopted Susan Meddaugh’s books about Martha—a talking dog.  These books provide both good stories and many opportunities to explain needed words.  There are six books about Martha.  The television program incorporates these stories and adds many more.  The series is now in its second year on PBS television, and third year of production.  I am an advisor to this program. 

The series has drawn a wide audience, mainly of children ages 3 to 7.  Research to date has shown that children learn words from the Martha Speaks shows at about the same rate as they learn words from stories read in school—without vocabulary instruction.  In other words, children acquire the meanings of about 10% of the words explained.  This is not as high as we would hope for, but is a lot better than having no story experience, which many children experience.

Let me know what you think of the Martha Speaks program. How do you feel about using TV to teach your kids new words?

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