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Dedicated to Teachers


Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Charlene Cobb & Camille Blachowicz, Part 1

How many of you became passionate word lovers because of the way you were (or were not) taught vocabulary in school? Today’s post calls attention to some not-best practices and to how the Common Core State Standards are helping teachers change their approach. Tomorrow’s post includes tips on how to bring research-based vocabulary instruction into your classroom.

In section 1 you write, “But if we’re honest, there are some classrooms where vocabulary instruction does not occur. As districts and schools transition to the Common Core State Standards, this is no longer an option. The Common Core standards recognize the importance of vocabulary instruction kindergarten through grade 12.” This book has come out at a perfect time. What’s your opinion of the Common Core?

We hope the Common Core standards will prompt teachers to plan intentional and purposeful vocabulary instruction. Including vocabulary, writing, and reading across the content areas is a significant improvement over previous attempts at standards by individual states. The detailed progression of each standard through the grades will help teachers differentiate instruction for the diverse learners in their classrooms. What we need to remember is that the Common Core identifies the “what” but not the “how.” The standards explain what students should know, understand, and be able to do, but it’s up to us to determine the instructional methods, strategies, and materials needed to maximize learning opportunities for all students. Our concerns with the Common Core stem from the related assessment and accountability measures currently being developed. We worry that the emphasis is shifting from improving instruction to measuring student achievement and ultimately measuring teacher effectiveness based on a single high-stakes test score.

You discuss this in detail in your book, but can you briefly explain why it is not best practice to give an entire class the same vocabulary words, have them look up each word in the dictionary, write down the definition, and use the word in a sentence?

There are two issues here. The first is having all students working with the same set of words. Choice is a critical component of developing word consciousness. When students are given a list of words, the message is, “As the teacher, I know which words are important. Here they are. Please learn them.” Without choice, there is no ownership. Without ownership, there is less likelihood of engagement. The second issue is using the dictionary as the primary resource. Looking a word up in a dictionary produces a very superficial level of understanding. Sometimes students may even select an incorrect definition. And they don’t explore the complexity of the word as it is used in the text. Making up a sentence about a word not fully understood doesn’t help the student remember and use that word again in speaking or writing. Students need to talk about words. They need to see how words relate to other words before they are asked to write about words.

The Common Core challenges schools to include literacy instruction in every content area. What’s the most important thing you’d tell a content-area teacher about vocabulary instruction?

Content area teachers often feel that students lack the background knowledge to understand what they read and that there is so much content to cover there isn’t time for vocabulary instruction. But teaching vocabulary is teaching background knowledge, and making time for vocabulary instruction in a content area class is crucial. Knowing the vocabulary gives students greater access to the underlying concepts needed to fully comprehend the text. If they don’t understand the key concepts, students will not only struggle with what they are currently reading but also be less likely to make connections as they move on to subsequent topics and concepts.

Topics: Not This But That, Teaching-General, Writing, Camille Blachowicz, Charlene Cobb, Elementary, Methods, Middle School

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