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Vocabulary 'report card': 'Urbane' stumps 8th-graders, 'grimace' doesn't

A first deep look at vocabulary skills among America's students shows their vocabulary proficiency tracks closely with their reading ability overall. Racial gaps exist, but boys and girls performed about the same.

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Racial gaps of a similar size exist at the fourth- and 12th-grade levels, as well. And for fourth- and eighth-graders, nearly 30 points divide students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch from their better-off peers (that measurement is not available for 12th grade).

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“Among my students who are economically disadvantaged, I see some common barriers: not having reading materials at home, not having a support group to encourage visits to the library or reading newspapers and magazines, or simply not being read to,… [and that] makes a difference,” said Brent Houston, principal of Shawnee (Okla.) Middle School, in a statement prepared for the NAEP vocabulary release event Thursday morning.

To address this, Shawnee teachers “routinely stop when reading passages aloud to ask questions and hold conversations,” helping students understand specific words, says Mr. Houston, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees NAEP.

Children need to learn a rich vocabulary in a variety of contexts at a young age – in preschool or before, says Judy Schickedanz, a retired education professor at Boston University who specialized in early-childhood reading. “If we don’t attend to vocabulary and content knowledge in these early years, they can’t ever catch up,” and gaps in reading scores solidify, she says.

“By NAEP tracking vocabulary, it gets it on the front burner for people in the earlier years to look at, and I think that can only help,” Ms. Schickedanz adds.

While girls’ overall reading scores are higher than boys’, in vocabulary the gap is minuscule in the fourth and eighth grades and doesn’t show up at all in 12th grade, the new report finds. That may be because the vocabulary questions are multiple choice, while the overall assessment includes items in which students must write their answers, and writing is something girls tend to score better on, Mr. Buckley says.

The report also offers some state-level data on students’ vocabulary knowledge. In 18 states, both fourth-graders and eighth-graders scored higher than the national average.

The focus on vocabulary is still too new to talk about long-term trends, but education experts hope that over time, NAEP will be able to track progress, especially because vocabulary is part of the emphasis in the new Common Core State Standards, with which most states are aligning their curriculum and testing systems.

“The Common Core pays considerable attention not just to learning individual words but also to their different meanings in different contexts and to the nuances in families of words. Like NAEP, it also stresses vocabulary that is characteristic of written language and academic texts rather than everyday speech,” said Francie Alexander, senior vice president of Scholastic Inc., and a former member of NAGB, in a statement prepared for Thursday.

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