FAIRWEATHER: Knowledge of words can earn students money

Tommy Fairweather, Teachable Moments

When I ask children if they would like thousands of dollars by the time they are eighteen, their eyes really light up.

I have at least two students who are seniors at the Northwest Florida State Collegiate High School that are getting tons of scholarship offers worth lots of money.  We are talking about $60,000.

Students who become good readers and excel in math can obtain college scholarship worth thousands of dollars. The major key to becoming a good reader is to develop a wide vocabulary. Learning to read requires some knowledge of how to pronounce and spell words (phonics) and the most important aspect of reading is understanding the meaning of words (comprehension).

A recent report on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress states that 4th graders average vocabulary score was 218 out of 500.  This gap indicates that children know less than half of the expected number of words according to a Wall Street Journal article, (12/6/12) “Students Fall Flat in Vocabulary Test” by Stephanie Banchero. 

She quotes Leslie Russell, a reading specialist as saying “the vocabulary scores could improve if students were more immersed in literacy at school and at home.” Russell added,

“We need to make more of an effort to get parents involved in teaching children reading and helping them to make sense of words they do not know.”

How can parents decide which words to focus on teaching their children?  The book, “Bring Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction” by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan, indicates that there are three tiers of words. 

Tier One words are learned orally and rarely require instruction because of their frequent use (baby, birthday).  Tier Two words are those words are that are often used in writing and give depth to a child’s language ability. Tier Three words are technical words used in various areas of study taught in the school curriculum.

Parents should primarily focus on the Tier Two words because they are not learned through conversation or specifically taught in school. How do parents find these Tier Two words? These words are found in the text that either you are reading to your child or that your child is reading to you.   You simply ask your child “what does such and such word means.”

If the child knows the meaning, continue reading.  If not, give the child the meaning of the word and then reread the sentence.

Hint: if children are reading chapter books, they should know most of the words. Rule: if the child is stumped by five words or more on a page, it is too hard, select a lower reading level book for your child. Hint: The book you select to read aloud to your child should be a year above the child’s reading level in school.  Most book levels can be checked on Scholastic Wizard: http://www.scholastic.com/bookwizard/

Once you have identified several words your children cannot quickly give the meaning of, you can concentrate on helping your child memorize their meanings. Create flash cards using an index card with the word on one side and the definition on the other side. Put those words on a chart stuck to the fridge. 

The chart will list your name and those of your children. Every time the word is used by someone, a mark goes by their name.  The person with the most marks gets a small reward.

Repetitive use of words orally will enable children to use the word for both reading and writing. 

You can also alter existing games so that they emphasize the meanings of the words. 

While playing Scrabble with my children, I added the rule that when they put down a word not only did it have to be spelled correctly, they had to define the word correctly.

Remember, some words have multiple meanings.

Reading and writing riddles, jokes or puns that make a play on the multiple meanings will enlarge your child’s vocabulary. A great read aloud book for the whole family is “Punished” by David Lubar.  Don’t forget crossword puzzle books.

The best ways to help your children are to fall in love with words yourself, share that love with them and require them to read.  Instilling the love of words can help your child earn thousands of dollars in scholarships!

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher, who lives in Destin and works at Smarts & Arts on Airport Road in Destin.