StudySkills Articles

Vocabulary and Differentiation: Larry Says, “Just Deal with It…”

Two weeks ago, we published an article about learning vocabulary words (available here). It was my answer to a question from Jean, a concerned parent whose son was struggling with an on-going vocabulary testing situation.

Immediately after we published that article, we received a response from Larry M. Here’s what Larry had to say:

Hi Susan,

Just finished the article regarding studying for vocabulary tests. How naïve are you? Why would a teacher give an assignment and then be willing to modify it as per parent request? What if every parent/student made that request to one degree or another for every vocabulary test? Chaos!

Secondly, you state that almost nobody teaches vocabulary that way. What are your sources for that statement? I don’t see any in the article. Regardless, if your assertion is true, then why waste the time addressing it? Suggest to the parent/student to deal with it as best as possible since it is an exception to the rule. By the way, what is the rule in terms of teaching vocabulary presently used in schools? You never address that either.

I do have some recommendations for students to try when studying for these kind of tests, and I’ll be more than happy to pass them along when I see your check in the mail.

Or perhaps, just contact a few middle school teachers and get their opinions; really, they’re the ones in the trenches.

Regards,

Larry

I am always open to constructive counter-points and criticism and usually share such discussions openly, acknowledging new perspectives and fair points, or providing clarification when it is clear that I did not fully articulate my intended response.

But, in this case, everyone on my team read Larry’s letter before it got to me. When they finally did share it with me, they had already composed a response; they were pretty motivated to share their thoughts with Larry! We are all teachers with classroom experience. Our goal is always “to make the lives of the parents and teachers who support students, easier.” So, while we all agree that Larry could have been more kind in his delivery, they did feel it was important to clarify a few points on my behalf. This is what they had to say…

“Just finished the article regarding studying for vocabulary tests. How naïve are you?”

We’ll let our clients and audience determine if we are naïve; that’s not for us to say. What we can tell you is:

  • Our education staff has a combined total of 62+ years of experience in the classroom.
  • Our SOAR® curriculum is used in thousands of schools.
  • Our book, SOAR® Study Skills, has been the best-selling study skills book in the world for 10+ years.
  • Microsoft’s Partners In Learning University designated Susan Kruger (SOAR®’s CEO) as a “Global Expert in Education.”
  • SOAR® has been awarded the “Innovative Programs” distinction by CHADD, the leading ADHD association, worldwide
  • But most significantly, the feedback we usually get from teachers is, “Thanks for being so practical!” See for yourself: Training Evaluations Download and Educators Case Studies/

“Why would a teacher give an assignment and then be willing to modify it as per parent request?”

First, we don’t know until we ASK. Furthermore, if we don’t ask, then the teacher may never know the extent or circumstance under which Daniel (and probably other students in that class) are struggling. Communication is a vital part of the educational process for students, teachers, parents, and administrators alike.

Second, the principles of differentiated instruction say it is appropriate to ask for modifications that best support students. The law also supports Jean and Daniel’s right for modifications with IEPs and 504 plans.

We are not suggesting the student or parent has the right or authority to demand whatever modifications they want. However, we do encourage students and parents to consult with teachers to find the best possible learning outcome for the student.

“What if every parent/student made that request to one degree or another for every vocabulary test? Chaos!”

We agree. What IF every parent/student made that request? That would certainly provide enough evidence to consider re-examining the assignment for the whole class. However, if it turns out that only Daniel or a small number of students are struggling, then that is evidence supporting a legitimate accommodation for those that are putting forth effort (as described by Jean), but still struggling.

“Secondly, you state that almost nobody teaches vocabulary that way. What are your sources for that statement?”

Perhaps Susan should have said, “No teacher using best practices in vocabulary instruction teaches vocabulary that way.” Susan’s information comes from her research through her post-graduate degree in reading instruction, her study under John Pikulski, Ph.D., Professor of Education, Director of the Reading Center, and Department Chair-University of Delaware, and inductee of the Reading Hall of Fame, and Shane Templeton, Ph.D., Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Nevada, Reno, author of Words Their Way; Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, and member of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, her research on brain biology and correlations to learning, and our team’s exposure to the hundreds of schools with whom we consult for studying and learning strategies.

Research does not support learning lists of unrelated vocabulary words. Instead, research promotes context “connections” as best-practices for learning. Brain biology confirms this; our brains are physically incapable of learning new information if it cannot connect new information to something else it already understands. Anything “learned” without making a meaningful connection is only stored in short-term memory, temporarily.

There are many sources for best practices, brain-based vocabulary instruction, but here’s a few you may reference:

  • A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction, by the National Reading Technical Assistance Center
  • The Vocabulary Book: Learning & Instruction, by Michael F. Graves
  • Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel L. Beck
  • Words Their Way; Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, by Shane Templeton, Ph.D.
  • Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. and Kucan, L.
  • The learning and use of academic English words. Language Learning, 47, 671-718., by Corson, D.
  • Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories. Readings Research Quarterly, 24, 174-87, buy Elley, W.B.

“Regardless, if your assertion is true, then why waste the time addressing it?”

The initial question came from a concerned parent. By nature of her question, it is fair for us to assume that she does not have formal educational training and experience, therefore is not familiar with best practices in vocabulary instruction. We are here to assist teachers and parents. In short, Jean needed help, so we responded.

“Suggest to the parent/student to deal with it as best as possible since it is an exception to the rule.”

Wow. Really?!

This is one of SOAR®’s greatest concerns about the education system… the perspective that “one size fits all.” For the most part, we find that this point of view is perpetuated by The System and that it frustrates both parents and teachers when they see students investing effort, but continuing to struggle. If we understand your statement correctly, it sounds like we simply have different values and priorities as they relate to education.

“By the way, what is the rule in terms of teaching vocabulary presently used in schools? You never address that either.”

Susan’s response did, in fact, address two fundamental rules for learning new vocabulary in the original article:

In the first paragraph, she explains the first rule, “ Students of all ages should focus on learning one thing at a time, either spelling or meaning… Many ELA experts say that students should be reading a word fluently for two years before they are expected to spell it.”

The remaining four paragraphs elaborate on the second rule, which is to make meaningful connections to the words. She described two strategies, a concept map and use of images/visuals, to promote meaningful connections.

Of course, we also included additional references above, if you’d like more information on this topic.

“I do have some recommendations for students to try when studying for these kind of tests, and I’ll be more than happy to pass them along when I see your check in the mail.”

It’s wonderful that you have some recommendations that could be helpful to our audience. However, before we put a “check in the mail,” can you provide some more information describing what you are specifically offering, your qualifications, and how your recommendations compare to some of the recommended resources we’ve identified in this article?

“Or perhaps, just contact a few middle school teachers and get their opinions; really, they’re the ones in the trenches.”

We L.O.V.E. this idea! We always invite teachers to share ideas and comments through our blog (following all articles), Facebook, webinars, and our website, just as you did. We are always eager to have conversations with our clients and subscribers and are open to constructive feedback.

Finally, we’d like to close with a comment about Daniel’s teacher. Jean mentioned that Daniel’s teacher “is very kind.” Like most teachers, he/she is doing his/her very best to deliver the highest level of quality instruction and assessment they know how. No teacher is “perfect,” and even the very best can always learn something new or improve upon a teaching strategy. That is precisely why Susan’s first suggestion to Jean was “talk with the teacher.” (And, at no time did she suggest, “Start a fight with the teacher.” Instead, her very next recommendation included strategies Jean can implement if she does not make any progress with the teacher and must continue to support Daniel on her own.)

As teachers, we don’t always know the struggles our students are quietly facing, until they are brought to our attention. From there, we can decide if we want to reflect on our teaching approach or make individual or at-large modifications.

Or, perhaps some teachers will follow your suggestion and simply tell the parent to “deal with it as best as possible since it is an exception to the rule.”

We trust our subscribers and clients will make the best judgment for themselves, and more importantly…for their students.

Sincerely,

The SOAR® Team


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