Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mind the Gap

Have you ever been to London? Mind the Gap signs are posted all over the Tube Stations (the public subways).  The gap is the space between the station platform and the train.  One misstep and the distracted passenger may find himself sprawled across the tracks.

This past week my focus has been on "Minding the Gap" many of our students are facing as developing readers and writers.   There is a significant difference in the quantity and quality of the words a young child hears on a daily basis if they are in a lower socioeconomic home rather than a higher socioeconomic home.This table illustrates the research done by Hart and Risley in 1995.

Family StatusActual Differences in Quantity of Words Heard in an hour at homeActual Differences in Quality of Words Heard in an hour at home
Welfare616 words5 affirmations, 11 prohibitions
Working Class1,251 words12 affirmations, 7 prohibitions
Professional2,153 words32 affirmations, 5 prohibitions

 Research they conducted looked at how many words a typical child would hear in an hour, a day, a year and eventually in the first 4 years of life. The gap is stunning.  The child in the lower socioeconomic home would hear 13 million words in 4 years compared to 45 million words heard by the child of the higher socioeconomic home.  They found that not only did children from the lower socioeconomic levels hear fewer words in an hour, but that the quality of words heard was also diminished from that of the words heard by their higher socioeconomic peers.

 This gap in vocabulary continues to grow as they enter kindergarten.   Stop and think for a minute about the disadvantage of having a limited vocabulary as a student moves through school.  It becomes harder to really understand the content words of a text if you are struggling to understand the basic vocabulary.  Writing papers and stories becomes more difficult.  Making connections between new ideas and prior knowledge becomes harder if a student is lacking the varied word experience of her peers.   Imagine being asked to draw a picture of a springtime garden or a sunrise over the ocean. You are given a brown crayon and a red crayon.  The person sitting next to you is given the Crayola 64 color box..with sharpener. You will both be able to draw a picture, but the person with 64 colors to choose from will certainly have more options.  You begin to see how important a varied vocabulary is to all students. This gap has some significant impact on the success of students in the classroom. It is our challenge as teachers to provide opportunities for all of our students to add words to their vocabulary toolbox. There are many effective ways to do this.  What research does show is that doing rote vocabulary memorization is not the most effective way to build long term vocabulary skills. Let's look at some strategies that have been proven to work well for all students:

Living Word Wall:  The key word is placed in the middle of the working area.  Students then add pictures, sentences and related words to the wall.  The teacher refers to the wall often and encourages the students to use the word in their classroom work.

Frayer Model:  This is a graphic organizer that puts the key word in the center.  The top left corner of the paper contains the word.  The top right corner is definitions - both dictionary and in their own words. In the bottom left corner, the students can draw a picture or provide examples to go with the word and the bottom right corner is usually used to include words or pictures to show what is NOT the word...or providing connections to other words or concepts they already know. Maybe include using it in a sentence. Once students have made a Frayer model - have them think pair share to exchange ideas or do a gallery walk to allow them to see and comment on other student's interpretations.

Marzano Notecard:   Similar to a Frayor model, but more portable, the notecard starts with the word in the middle.  The top left corner is the dictionary definition. The top right corner is the student's definition. The bottom left corner is a diagram or picture - this works especially well with science terms. The bottom right corner is a list of other related terms.  On the back, the student writes two sentences that not only use the word, but make a connection to other terms in the content area or a real world situation.

Two in One:  In this strategy, students must write sentences using the vocabulary words for a unit or for the week.  The twist...they must use two words in one sentence.  They may change the form of the word if necessary.

As we work toward aligning to the common core, one of our tasks will be to focus on the vocabulary students will need to know in order to access the content of our courses.  If you are interested in learning more about helping students to build vocabulary, look through the resources below.


  • The Tennessee Academic Vocabulary Project   worked with Marzano and is aligned to the Common Core
  • Interview with Andrew Biemiller   Dr. Biemiller is an expert on identifying words students need to know to be successful throughout their academic life and beyond.  
  • Examples of Frayer Models
  • Wordsift   Great tool for helping kids see vocabulary in context.  You can cut and paste text into the tool.  It will make a word cloud out of the 50 most frequently used words in the text.  The words can be color coded by subject area. Each word is linked to a google image search. Each word gets pulled into the thesaurus and you can quickly see related words.  Each word can then be seen in its original context.
  • 6 Steps to Teaching Vocabulary - Marzano (ASCD EdLeadership Sept 2009)

Reference :Hart, B., & Risley, R. T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

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