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Reading Comprehension: It's All About Vocab!

Posted January 19, 2022 in Articles

By Amy Erich, Director of Literacy Development and Cheryl Cook, Upper School Academic Dean

Everything we do at Lawrence School is designed with the science of reading in mind. This includes actively building comprehension skills—which rest atop a solid foundation of vocabulary.

Reading Comprehension: It's All About Vocab!

Through CodeBreakers, our OG-based multisensory reading curriculum, students use the rules of phonics to accurately decode. However, our reading instruction sure doesn't end there. We implement The Key Comprehension Routine in every classroom to strengthen their ability to draw meaning from those words. The routine rests on one very critical component (which is also proven to be the best predictor of overall academic success) and that’s vocabulary.

Students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences typically enter their school years with large speaking and listening vocabularies. But as they struggle with learning how to read, their word acquisition slows dramatically compared to their peers. In most cases a gap forms between the advanced content they’re interested in and the text they're able to read, further diminishing their exposure to new terminology.

As these readers age, comprehending passages at the middle or high school level is incredibly difficult without a strong vocabulary. Crack open one of today's textbooks and you’ll see what we mean. Sentences featuring words like phloem, embargo, nebula, protagonist, coefficient, xylem, and binomial, just to name a few, are challenging for anyone to understand. This is why at Lawrence, we introduce The Key Vocabulary Routine at every grade level. There are five evidence-based strategies within the routine:

1.) We preview difficult words first.

Prior to reading a new passage as a class, we use quick word knowledge activities to provide a basic familiarity of the terms readers will encounter. These activities often get learners up and moving around the classroom. In the Lower School, this might encompass students physically acting out words like meander or slither. Older students might be asked to repeat a term the teacher introduced, and then move to the left of the room if they’ve heard it before or to the right if it’s something new.

2.) We make connections between new words and related words, and draw upon background knowledge.

Through rich discussion and exercises, we help students adopt new terminology by actively thinking about definitions—what they mean to them personally and how they relate to similar words. Students use a templated format to explore every part of those words from definitions to the reader’s interpretation of meaning, to examples and even non-examples. Here are some examples of what these explorations look like on paper:

Reading Comprehension: It's All About Vocab!

3.) We only focus on specific words.

The goal of the routine is to develop mastery and retention of the most important words in the English language, not necessarily every word in a textbook. A research-based list helps teachers zero in on the terms they should focus on in depth.

4.) We customize word-learning strategies.

Putting ourselves into our students’ shoes, allows us to see things from their perspective. Lawrence teachers tailor word-learning strategies to each learner based on their knowledge of the specific student’s skills and experiences. These customized strategies include:

  • defining vocabulary using words that are familiar to students
  • contextualizing with a learner’s background knowledge
  • examining roots, prefixes, or suffixes and comparing them to known words.

5.) We promote word consciousness.

We make vocabulary instruction fun! Students play engaging word games, create word walls, and read to build knowledge. Our goal is to create a positive vocabulary culture so learners gain “word consciousness.” This awareness and appreciation for language inspires curiosity and is integral to a person’s ability to think critically about what they read throughout their lifetime.

Research tells us the more exposure a child has to words, the larger their vocabulary will grow. Here are a few ways parents can make their home vocab-friendly:

  • Use unique words in everyday conversation with your kids. Don’t distill your speech patterns into words you think a child will understand. Speak as if you were conversing with an adult and supply context and age-appropriate definitions as needed.
  • Help children connect real world experiences with new words. For example, if they dislike the roasted brussel sprouts you served for dinner, they might describe them as yucky. While picky eaters frustratingly challenge every home chef, this is actually a great opportunity to introduce disgusting or palate.
  • Read, read, and read some more! Model being a reader for your child and let them read any book, anytime, and anywhere. Also, make time to read aloud to your children, regardless of their age.
  • Encourage your child to read things other than books—recipes, instructions, funny birthday cards, or even sayings printed on a friend’s T-shirt.
  • Play fun board games that encourage word acquisition—Bananagrams, Apples to Apples, Balderdash, Scattergories, and Scrabble are great choices, among so many others.
  • Consume media as a family: listen to talk radio, audiobooks, and podcasts during car rides and further discuss the story or topics.
  • When your child learns a new term, reinforce it through repeated exposure. Make a mental note of the word and work it into conversation again and again.

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