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Reading Comprehension’s “Most Valuable Player”

Carla Kessler

Yes, there really is an “MVP” for reading, I promise. I know it’s dangerous to make promises, especially in education! But there have been more correlations in educational research supporting the value of this “MVP” than with any other educational research.

Teachers are reluctant to take on the concept of an “MVP.” We have been taught that children all learn differently. Which they do! But how could there be one thing that makes a difference to every child.?

I remember attending a workshop by Dr. Kate Kinsella, who stated clearly that there was an “MVP.” As I turned to look at my colleagues, I could see that more than half the teachers were doing a mental eye roll. You could just see their minds already preparing a defense to such a threatening idea, as if saying, “We work hard to make progress with our readers, using so many highly recommended strategies, assessing and reassessing. It just can’t be that simple.”

Well I agree, education is never simple, but we have continued to give inadequate time and attention to this “MVP.” We’ve continued to get caught up in the latest teaching concepts, and have simply let this tremendous opportunity stay on the back burner. Is it because it is too simple or just too obvious?

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Listen to what what Dr. Kate Kinsella said at that workshop.

Here’s what E. D. Hirsch reminds us in a speech to the Virginia House of Delegates: “The persistent achievement gap between haves and have-nots in our society is chiefly a verbal gap. There is no greater practical attainment in the modern world than acquiring a bellyful of words. A large vocabulary is the single most reliable predictor of practical, real-world competence…” - E.D. Hirsch.

 And, “Correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.” -- A Wealth of Words

Marzano’s never stops reminding us, “Direct teaching of vocabulary might be one of the most underused activities in K-12 education. The lack of vocabulary instruction might be a result of misconceptions about what it means to teach vocabulary and its potential effect on student learning.” - Marzano et al., 2002 Classroom Instruction That Works

And here are wise words from some teachers who get it, “We think with words, therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary.” -- A. Draper and G. Moeller.

Have I convinced you yet?

So what does a teacher do?

Make time. I know, the most controversial word in teaching -- time! It’s truly the holy grail.

So how much time is enough more time?

I experimented with best practices for word learning in my classroom for 14 years, fine tuning and streamlining. My personal action research showed me that 90 minutes a week can do it! I made a difference of 1.2 years in reading scores in just four months by prioritizing 90 minutes a week for differentiated word learning. And I did this repeatedly over four years (until I “retired”).

I don’t know many teachers who commit to that amount of time for word learning weekly, but if you do already, and are not getting great results then perhaps your strategies are not working well for you.

If you are not spending 90 minutes a week, I challenge you to give it a try. It means giving up something else. For instance, instead of sustained silent reading, use paired reading, where student partners are identifying words they don’t know (as in the VOCABUTRIX lesson plan mentioned below). Quit spending time having students look up words in the dictionary. This process does not teach word knowledge. Or for at least one month, minimize your teaching of close reading or reading strategies. It’s tough, but a silver bullet for reading is not something to sideline.

There are lots of ways to teach vocabulary successfully. But there are some specific DO’s and DON’Ts.

  • DO use strategies that involve social interaction, connections to background knowledge, learning in context, and metacognition.
  • DO differentiate the learning and make the idea of word learning fun and full of personal value.
  • DON’T teach definitions and drill students to memorize.
  • DON’T use assessments of word learning out of context, alone, to evaluate student learning. Assess reading comprehension.

If your current strategies fit these criteria, all you have to do is create more time.

If you are looking for a packaged 90-minute weekly plan for word learning that incorporates the DO’s, go HERE to gain access to a weekly activity plan called VOCABUTRIX.

Are you ready to take on the challenge of making more room for vocabulary instruction? Can you make time for 90 minutes a week? Join me and others in a month-long challenge to spend 90 minutes week on word learning. We’ll send tips, inspiration, and support along the way. Learn more: The 90 Minute Challenge.

Let me finish with this last poignant statistic:

“According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22 percent of children in the United States are living in poverty.

According to the Heart of America foundation, 61 percent of families living in poverty do not have children's books in their homes. Consequently, children living in poverty already have a 50 percent weaker vocabulary than their wealthier peers at the start of school.”

I ask you to do one thing for sure, before you leave this page: write a comment. Tell us what your roadblocks are to meeting The 90 Minute Challenge.