Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vocabulary is a stumbling block in reading comprehension

A limited vocabulary is frequently a stumbling block for my students when it comes to reading comprehension.

Both the SAT the ACT include "vocabulary in context" questions:  "In the context of this passage, what does fill-in-the-word mean?" These questions often stump my students.  However, even questions that are not explicitly about vocabulary can present problems.  Consider one question which had as possible answers:  a.  stunned amazement,  b.  silent contempt,  c.  mild concern, and d.  feigned interest.   Imagine trying to answer the question without knowing the meanings of "contempt" or "feigned."  Worse, a student will occasionally miss the entire point of a passage because such a large percentage of the words are unfamiliar that he or she can't work out the gist of the article through the context.

Am I just being a curmudgeon, or have student vocabularies really declined since I was young?  According to an article in today's Huffington Post, it's the latter.  Exam scores recently released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal that the students at the top - those most likely to apply to college - are performing less well than their predecessors.  Furthermore, vocabulary was (as predicted) closely linked to reading comprehension.

If you are the parent of a young child, you will want to take note.  There are vast differences in the rate at which young children are exposed to language.  These differences are usually described as existing between higher and lower socioeconomic groups, but if you are looking at child-care or preschool options, you should pay close attention to the language proficiency of teachers and child-care providers.  Differences in language acquisition in early childhood persist into adulthood.

If you are the parent of a slightly older child, you should continue reading to your child, even if he or she has already learned to read.  Your child should read on his or her own, of course, but by reading aloud, you can introduce your child to literature that is on a more challenging level.  Don't put your child in a position of trying to make up for years of neglect by attempting to learn 2,000 vocabulary words in the month before the college entrance exam.

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