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.

Hans Pennink/AP/File
In this September file photo, students walk in the hallways as they enter the lunch line of the cafeteria at Draper Middle School in Rotterdam, N.Y. The Nation’s Report Card tracks America's students vocabulary proficiency closely with their reading ability overall.

For the first time, the Nation’s Report Card is zeroing in on a key component of students’ reading skills: vocabulary.

A useful understanding of vocabulary goes beyond simply recalling a dictionary definition, education experts say. What’s most important is for students to pull the appropriate meaning from a word in the context of what they’re reading.

Thursday’s new report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows results from a bolstered focus on vocabulary within the reading assessments given to national samples of students in 2009 and 2011. 

The results show that students’ vocabulary knowledge tracks closely with their overall reading ability

“About half of the variation in reading comprehension [on the main test] can be associated with variation in vocabulary,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

The report also hints that schools and parents have a long way to go to ensure that their children can precisely understand the kinds of texts they will encounter in an academic context.

“There’s quite a bit written about vocabulary and the best ways to teach it; unfortunately we’re not seeing that go into the classrooms as much as we’d like,” said Margaret McKeown, a senior scientist and clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.

“Typically for the younger kids, teachers often use words that the kids already know … conversational words,… but they’re not attending to the meanings of words kids are meeting in texts,” said Professor McKeown, who helped develop the reading and vocabulary framework for NAEP.

Students in fourth, eighth, and 12th grades answered multiple-choice vocabulary questions based on passages of text they had read.

At least 75 percent of fourth-graders understood the meaning of words such as “created” and “underestimate.” Eighth-graders knew “grimace” and “enticing.” And 12th-graders grasped “capitalize” and “prospective.”

Some words that stumped the majority of students: “barren” and “prestigious” for fourth-graders; “urbane” for eighth-graders; and “delusion” for 12th-graders.

All items on the test are based on what a student performing at grade level should be able to understand. But, as in the overall reading assessment, there are some large gaps in vocabulary knowledge between various groups of students.

Among eighth-graders, for instance, the overall average score was 265 on a 500-point scale in both 2009 and 2011. But Asian and white, non-Hispanic students on average scored more than 20 points higher than black and Hispanic students. The gap between whites and Hispanics did narrow somewhat, however, from 30 points in 2009 to 28 points in 2011.

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).

“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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