Preaching the Good Word
By Robert Schroeder
How do we learn words?
It's a more difficult question than may seem at first glance. We learn words at such a young age that we are incapable of communicating how we are accomplishing the actual learning. By the time we have reached an age of reason, our vocabulary has nearly reached maturation.
National Louis University professor Camille Blachowicz, Ph.D., is guiding teachers on strategies for answering this tricky question as part of the grant-funded Multiphase Comprehensive Vocabulary Instruction Program (MCVIP). Blachowicz is implementing the program at Washington Elementary School's fourth and fifth-grade classrooms in Evanston, Ill. with striking results. In two years' time, the program has boosted standardized achievement scores in both grade levels.
"We have lots of bits and pieces of research, but how this actually fits to work in the classroom is a tough one," Blachowicz said. "Our purpose is to look at best practices in research and vocabulary instruction and see how teachers can really incorporate this in a comprehensive and orchestrated way."
Research supports four key components Blachowicz seeks for her teachers to instill. First, teachers need to have individual words they want all students to comprehend. Second, students need to develop word consciousness. Students need to develop their ability to use these new words in writing, speaking and reading. Finally, teachers need to impart word-learning strategies so that students can learn words on their own.
The last component may be the toughest; it requires teachers to seriously impact how a student thinks about words. Blachowicz says that in order for students to become independent word-learners, students need to learn how to use parts of a word to help them figure out what a word means, examining word origins and word parts. Blachowicz works with teachers to aid students in placing words within context and to seek clues from context to understand meaning. All these techniques feed into a greater goal of comprehensive reading, speaking and writing improvements.
Washington Elementary is a unique environment to implement this program because of its cultural diversity. The school features a two-way immersion program, meaning students of both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking heritage are mixed together. Cultural richness has created barriers for students with lesser-developed English-speaking skills, who often hang back and let students with stronger speaking skills lead discussions. Blachowicz and her teachers use models called vocabulary frames to help more students participate in discussions and prepare to write.
The program is currently in its second year at Washington Elementary. With so little data on how real teachers can implement vocabulary programs, Blachowicz says the program has not been without its roadblocks.
"It's like the woman who did the study of death: there are stages of professional development," Blachowicz said. "Enthusiasm, disgruntlement, fatigue, then enthusiasm again; we're passing through those stages."
The rough patches are key to informing future teachers on best practices for implementation. Several challenges have been ironed out in the first year-plus of the program. A need for experienced teacher facilitators to work with teachers new to the program has surfaced, while the usual challenges of teacher time and workload are in play.
Despite the learning curve, Blachowicz is pleased at the rate of successful adoption at Washington.
"Teachers say, 'I didn't like this, but now I do it and I see what's happening, and I see I have to really do it,'" Blachowicz said. "They've found new ways to do it."
With sister programs underway in Missouri and Colorado, Blachowicz's MCVIP team in Evanston is aiming to add more schools and teachers to the program as the program enters its third year, a year focused on implementation after years of introduction and development. As funding expires after the 2011-12 school year, Blachowicz aims to apply for another three years of funding.