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AUTHOR: Stahl, Steven A.; Nagy, William E. TITLE: Teaching Word Meanings SERIES: Literacy Teaching Series PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates YEAR: 2006
Emily Duvall, College of Education, The Pennsylvania State University
This text focuses on the teaching of vocabulary from a pragmatic yet theoretically grounded approach to understanding how students learn word meanings as well as how teachers can strategically decide when to invest in particular types of vocabulary development and what that might look like in application. The authors systematically advance a teaching methodology intended to promote long term change in students through the purposeful teaching of 'word consciousness' as a life-long approach to valuing word discovery and meaning apprehension.
Suitable for teacher education programs, including pre-service teaching methods classes, this text is also useful for practicing teachers who are continuing to develop their knowledge and understanding of literacy learning and development.
This is another volume in the Literacy Teaching Series, texts that are described by the publishers as 'written by leading scholars and linked by a social constructivist perspective'. They are intended to be used as core or supplemental texts in language and literacy education curricula.
The book is divided into three parts with multiple chapters in each and it is important to understand what the book is not about as much as what it is about. As authors Stahl and Nagy tell us in the Preface, this is a text on vocabulary instruction, but it does not focus on children's acquisition of sight vocabulary; this is a text that considers the importance of vocabulary to reading and writing, but it does not focus on the mechanics of decoding; this text includes instructional activities, but does not support nor provide activities that are meant to be passively received by students; this is a text oriented towards spending limited amounts of strategically planned instructional time to contribute to students' vocabulary growth and independent learning not a campaign to press teachers into devoting increasing amounts of teaching time to vocabulary. As this is meant as a teaching text I have attached a lengthy Chapter Highlights section at the end of the review that details each chapter.
PART I: The Lay of the Land provides the groundwork for understanding the importance of a large vocabulary (chapter 1), how vocabulary is connected to reading comprehension (chapter 2), the difficulties inherent in vocabulary instruction (chapter 3), and the authors' response to the questions that they have raised which outlines their strategic approach to developing students' vocabulary repertoires (chapter 4).
PART II: Teaching Specific Words builds on the plan introduced at the end of the last section by focusing on types of words and instruction, including: words that are used frequently in many written genres that students may not have encountered orally (chapter 5), words that require building new conceptual understandings through intensive instruction (chapter 6), essential high frequency words that teachers need to make sure all students know (chapter 7), and how to seamlessly incorporate discussions about words and ideas as a natural part of the classroom (chapter 8).
PART III: Independent Word Learning puts the focus of instruction on the goal of encouraging the individual to be a life-long word learner by explaining how teachers can boost students' exposure to rich language (chapter 9), ways to increase the motivation to acquire vocabulary that promotes student 'word consciousness' (chapter 10), word learning strategies that emphasize word parts (chapter 11), word learning strategies that emphasize context (chapter 12), and word learning strategies that emphasize definitions and dictionary use (chapter 13). The concluding chapter of the section (and the book) is a table that summarizes links between instructional approaches and types of words (chapter 14).
Teaching Word Meanings offers a unique contribution to teacher understandings of how and when to teach what kinds of vocabulary as it is primarily a framework for developing teacher thinking about word meanings, instructional approaches, and classroom time as well as a resource for advancing student vocabulary acquisition. Stahl and Nagy include research-based discussions and descriptions of strategies and activities and give consideration to student diversity, but they offer more: a coherent way for teachers to construct and apply their knowledge with purpose. As a result, Teaching Word Meanings differs substantially from texts that put the emphasis on activities and students, as in word study or word solver approaches (e.g. Words Their Way, Word Matters, Word Solvers), by focusing more on teacher thinking and planning in order to bring about desired change in their students. Thus Stahl and Nagy offer us a larger picture of what it is to teach children about word meanings by providing a well-reasoned, coherent context for many of the activities and instructional strategies offered in vocabulary texts.
As a special education teacher as well as an instructor of teaching methods for reading and language arts at the elementary level I was immediately drawn to Stahl and Nagy's succinct yet comprehensive approach to what seems to be a very doable method of incorporating more purposeful vocabulary instruction into the classroom. As a teacher educator, I found the vocabulary growth pyramid to be a simplified and clear vision of a research-based, strategic approach to teaching that pre-service as well as experienced teachers could understand and visualize in operation. The pyramid itself is not only a useful graphic organizer for planning purposes, but could also serve as an evaluation template for teachers to begin to analyze where they currently put their energy with regard to time for vocabulary development planning and subsequent classroom implementation. This could provide a gateway into formulating a process of classroom change in terms of vocabulary instruction, but more so in the way thinking about words can be understood as the central and unifying element of literacy practices in general.
Nonetheless, the text does bear questioning, for example:
In Chapter 3, Problems and Complexities, one of the discussions, on core words in print, seems to go beyond consideration of what the least amount of words or the most commonly found words might include and appears to continue E. D. Hirsch's practice of accepting that there is a particular minimum that must to be acquired in order to be literate. Indeed, the authors state that ''the vocabulary of written English is like a foreign language to many children'' and that this can't be addressed by simply ''relying on our shared experiences of communication'' (45-6). It begs the question: who decides what the core set of words should be and how do they decide? Stahl and Nagy give the impression that teachers can and should make these decisions however the authors also emphasize the complexity of vocabulary development, reinforcing over and over the sheer numbers and variety of words children need to know. This may result in a kind of inertia as teachers are given to feel capable on the one hand yet intimidated on the other.
Also troubling is the authors' argument that ''because an author of a written text is not usually present (and may, in fact, be dead), written language needs to be more explicit and less dependent on shared knowledge'' (46). I would suggest that it behooves us as teachers to consider not simply whether the author should be the final authority, but to question whether the author can ever be the final authority when it comes to understanding text. In this instance, Stahl and Nagy's assertion smacks of the romantic reconstructivism of Schleiermacher, which Gadamer suggests is a futile effort at understanding resulting in ''no more than handing on a dead meaning'' (Gadamer, 167), and I would suggest that readers be attentive to the implications of such statements in so far as it implies a one right way to understand text.
Politically speaking, one of the more interesting reads in the text is in the chapter 9 segment, 'Wide Reading'. It is a tricky section which seems to both accept the general results of the National Reading Panel (NRP) study that ''providing more reading time does not automatically result in gains in vocabulary growth'' (128), while also offering research studies to suggest that the limitations of the methodology used for investigating the relationship between reading and vocabulary, particularly sustained silent reading (SSR), may have lead to the particular conclusions found in the report. Stahl and Nagy do include a brief retort to the NRP by suggesting that other kinds of research, such as correlational studies, might have offered more insight when it comes to discussing the effects of such instructional practices as SSR noting, however, how difficult it is to investigate such procedures. Ultimately the authors resort to stating that ''common sense suggests that children should have some time during the day to read books of their own choosing, if only for motivational purposes'' (130), watering down the strength of the research they have presented and undermining their argument with the NRP study. Anyone who has read Cole's ''Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies'' might wonder at this maneuvering as Stahl and Nagy seem to be trying to play both sides of the field by accepting what many view as a very politically motivated study but also promoting a framework for teaching that suggests teacher judgment is vital to student development.
On a more meticulous level, in chapter 8, Talk About Words, Stahl and Nagy use examples of dialogue to represent the kind of conversation being recommended as offering ways of expanding and developing children's vocabulary. However, some of the dialogue is quite misleading. In the picture walk example, during the discussion of 'orbit' (p. 114), the teacher promotes the use of a chunking technique to examine and decode the word she has just read yet her intent is to focus on the meaning. Looking for small words, in the case of orbit, does not connect to the meaning, and the strategies at play in the lesson are disconnected rather than integrated. Furthermore, this rift is not addressed with students (as far as we know). While Stahl and Nagy use the example to demonstrate ways that meaning can be explicitly taught in conversation about a text, the dialogue also reveals ways that teachers can mislead by not addressing how strategies can work together or may work separately for different purposes. A few pages later, in the talk around words example, the authors use a conversation between a parent and child as an example of how parents and teachers can expand on what a child already knows through collaborative dialoguing. However, what the example actually demonstrates is the adult jumping in too early for ''the parent then supplied the answer she would expect (and the child would be able to give)…'' (Stahl & Nagy quoting Hart & Risley, 1999). In other words, the adult overtakes the child and without more incremental prompting or coaching we can never know whether the child did indeed have and would have been able to articulate more in-depth knowledge. As a result the adult remains in the position of 'teller' rather than coach. In this instance, Stahl and Nagy might have done well to consider including a short discussion of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development and how to move forward with the child in a collaborative yet incremental way that presses the child to do more (Vygotsky, 1978). The example might have found better use as a demonstration of approximation with suggestions offered as to how a teacher or parent might adjust the conversation to develop their ability to lead rather than tell. Indeed, as Stahl and Nagy include consideration of the difficulties that teachers have with changing their ways of instruction and interaction it is important to be sure to offer clear cut examples. Both of these particular conversation samples seem to beg for analysis as non-examples.
Also questionable are some of statements included in the text without benefit of any backing, such as: ''Effective teachers can cajole children to read books that will engage them as well as develop their reading abilities'' (130) and ''…so there is no reason to see literate English as being in competition with other languages or dialects. If the student feels that he or she is being forced to make a choice between the language of home and the language of school, the language of school is ultimately very likely to be the loser'' (138).
Thus, while I would advocate considering the volume as a complementary text to methods classes in language and literacy education as it may help demystify types of words, clarify purpose in teaching vocabulary and offer important strategies for implementing vocabulary instruction in the reading and writing classroom, I would also caution that not everything be taken at face value. Furthermore, while elements of Deweyian constructivism seem to underpin the approach in terms of reflection, development over time, social interaction, and life long learning, the text should not be mistaken as a plan for developing inquiry-based vocabulary instruction. The method still relies very much on transmission however it is moderated by the inclusion of discussion and interaction as central to student learning as well as encouraging student agency through the acquisition of strategies to be used independently.
Teaching Word Meanings could also be a valuable resource for schools seeking to develop a comprehensive approach to vocabulary development. And while pre-service teachers and experienced teachers alike may initially feel somewhat overwhelmed by the conceptual framework and the variety of strategies that Stahl and Nagy build into the growth pyramid, the research-to-practice approach of the text helps to develop insight into the way the methodology builds upon itself and the way the instructional activities could be naturalized and layered in the classroom. Overall, praxis could surely be more thorough if, as Stahl and Nagy suggest, teachers develop a deeper awareness of vocabulary as word meanings and word consciousness.
Dufresene, M. (2002). Word solvers: Making sense of letters & sounds. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Bear, D.R., Invernizzi,M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F., eds. (2003). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall.
Coles, G. (2003). Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Fox, B.J. (2000). Word identification strategies: Phonics from a new perspective. 3rd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
Gadamer, H-G. (1960/2004). Truth and method. 2nd revised ed. New York, NY: Continuum.
Henry, M.K.(2003). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding & spelling instruction. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Pinnell, G.S. & Fountas, I.C. (1998). Word matters: Teaching phonics and spelling in the reading/writing classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological process. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, E. Souberman, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chapter (1) The Importance of Vocabulary. Reiterating their understanding of vocabulary as referring to word meanings rather than word recognition, Stahl & Nagy use this brief chapter to introduce the reader to idea that having a large vocabulary is important because it allows us to access and demonstrate what we already understand, while also paving pathways for increasing the depth and breadth in new understandings. They emphasize research-based correlations between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension (Anderson & Freebody, 1981) suggesting that ''it may overstate the case to say that vocabulary knowledge is central to children's and adults' success in school and in life, but not by much'' (p. 4). Furthermore, they add that there is some evidence that suggests good school experiences may have an ameliorating effect on early life experiences that are inadequate and note that ''vocabulary knowledge is cumulative'' in its benefits and that we know students can be taught word meanings (p. 6). Stahl and Nagy appeal to educators to consider the importance of incorporating vocabulary instruction in their classroom schedules and include, among their arsenal of support, a recap of the infamous ''Matthew effect'', Stanovich (1986), as well as a nod to the National Reading Panel (2000) research.
Chapter (2) Vocabulary Knowledge, Reading Comprehension, and Readability. Stahl and Nagy introduce the reader to the complexity of the relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension by suggesting that the Anderson and Freebody (1981) ''instrumental hypothesis – the idea that it is simply knowing more words that makes you a better reader'' (p. 10) - is too simplistic an explanation. Instead, they offer five additional, complementary hypotheses: 1 - the knowledge hypothesis: what we already know is related to larger concepts that words represent and understandings are formed in relation to these larger concepts; 2 - the aptitude hypothesis: the correlation between reading and vocabulary knowledge is ''reflect[ed in] a more general underlying verbal aptitude'' (p. 11); 3 - the metalinguistic hypothesis: the awareness of elements such as phonemes, morphemes, words, and how words can have different meanings links vocabulary to reading comprehension; 4 - the access hypothesis: the greater the vocabulary, the greater the access to word meanings based on automaticity and accuracy; 5 – the reciprocal hypothesis: a bigger vocabulary increases reading comprehension which in turn increases vocabulary acquisition (Matthew effect reversed). The authors also consider readability or the relative difficulty of text vocabulary in terms of considering overall text difficulty. They discuss issues related to the factors that are usually considered in judgments about text readability such as word difficulty based on mechanistic elements (number of syllables, frequency that a word is used) versus less tangible elements such as domain knowledge and concept awareness.
Chapter (3) Problems and Complexities. In this chapter the authors problematize vocabulary learning, identifying and addressing three obstacles to productive vocabulary growth: 1 -- children need to learn a large number of words; 2 -- a vocabulary of 'literate English' can be quite foreign to native as well as non-native speakers; 3 -- being able to define a word does not guarantee word knowledge and usability. In their review of the research relative to word knowledge Stahl & Nagy emphasize that children cannot learn all the words they need through instruction, particularly instruction of individual words alone. They suggest that children need to develop the ability to learn words on their own, that direct vocabulary instruction must be varied according to the level of need relative to particular kinds of words, particular contexts and usage, and that instruction should consider the conceptual complexity (or not) of words. In other words, ''if one cannot teach all the words that children need, then one must make good decisions about what should be taught'' (p.45).
Chapter (4) A Comprehensive Approach to Vocabulary Learning. Modifying the work of Michael Graves (2000) Stahl and Nagy introduce three broad instructional approaches to vocabulary development that form the foundation for the balance of the text: ''teaching specific words, immersion in rich language, developing generative vocabulary knowledge'' (p.48). They suggest that individual word instruction, while insufficient on its own, can still be part of the process of vocabulary development when not limited to ineffective, traditional methods of instruction. They emphasize opportunities for rich language exposure through reading, including read alouds, and engagements with oral language both of which should involve ''talk slightly above children's heads, but in a way that engages them rather than losing them'' (p.49). In addition, Stahl and Nagy distinguish two aspects of generative word knowledge: word consciousness, a form of language awareness that some children come by naturally, and word-learning strategies that can be taught. The highlight of the chapter is the authors' 'vocabulary growth pyramid', which orients the reader to ''the need for both variety and proportion in vocabulary instruction [wherein] the three levels of the pyramid reflect different amounts of time and effort per word that are appropriate for both different kinds of words and different purposes.'' The pyramid model emphasizes that the bulk of classroom time be spent on Level I, the instructional practices relative to developing generative word knowledge, with less time spent on Level II, the instructional practices that go hand in hand with rich language immersion, and the least amount of classroom time on the intensive instruction at Level III, the individual word level.
Chapter (5) Teaching Words for Ownership. This chapter focuses on the teaching strategies that are used at top of the vocabulary growth pyramid for essential words that may require an in-depth approach to promoting understanding in order for children to 'own' them or use them well in particular literacy contexts. Stahl and Nagy provide explicit ideas for instructors that revolve around three characteristics for word ownership development: definitional and contextual information, active participation of students in learning, and multiple, varied instructional engagements. Here the authors stress the importance of word selection when investing in high levels of teacher planning and student time.
Chapter (6) Teaching Concepts. In this chapter, Stahl and Nagy differentiate between words that represent concepts that may be more readily understood by children due to prior experience versus those that involve more complex concepts requiring more intensive background instruction. They stress that teaching complex concepts must include the identification of critical word attributes, providing the category the concept belongs to, and generating examples and non examples connected to the concept. The authors provide a variety of visual mapping techniques as teaching tools that both highlight and explicitly address the manifold nature of complex concepts. Included are a four square approach (based on the work of Eeds & Cockrum, 1985), varieties of semantic mapping, Venn diagrams and semantic feature analysis.
Chapter (7) Teaching High-Frequency Words. Stahl and Nagy identify three categories of high-frequency words for thorough instruction: high-utility literate vocabulary, key content area vocabulary, and high-frequency words. Instructional strategies applicable to the first two categories are discussed in chapters 5 and 6 with high-frequency words, words that are recognized and understood on sight, the focus of this brief chapter. Stahl and Nagy type high-frequency words as function words (they perform a syntactic function) or content words and, true to the scope of the text, the authors focus on instruction connected with the content word type. They suggest that utility, as well as frequency, should define those words that are more worthy of in-depth instruction as well as those with more nebulous or multiple meanings. They include discussions based on research in the field in terms of techniques to support the development of swift recognition such as echo reading versus repeated reading. In addition, they note that English language learners may need more explicit instruction to develop understanding, as well as recognition, of high-frequency words.
Chapter (8) Talking About Words. This chapter focuses on ways to deliberately develop depth in orally based instructional engagements about word meanings through cognitively challenging discussions with children in the context of story reading. Based largely on the work of Beck & McKeown (2001) and McKeown & Beck (2001) in 'Text Talk', Stahl and Nagy promote the use of open-ended questions to encourage more dialogic teacher-student practices rather than teacher-telling methods. The authors also include discussion of research-based approaches for encouraging young and/or struggling readers, such as the 'picture walk' (Clay, 1991, 1993; Fountas & Pinnel, 1996; Stahl, 2003) and more-in depth review of the language or 'type of talk' that is cognitively challenging (DeTemple & Snow,2003; Taylor et al, 2000).
Chapter (9) Exposure to Rich Language. Stahl and Nagy promote two pronged approach to providing rich language exposure and advocate not only talk around texts but also contend that including time for independent, wide reading that is appropriate to a student's level of comprehension, is even more important. Based on research that examines the effects of exposure to different sources of print, the authors suggest that teachers include regular time for independent reading that provides children with frequent opportunities to read a variety of texts, rendering more contact with different words. Critically, Stahl and Nagy consider the failure of the National Reading Panel study (2000) to find positive effects from silent sustained reading (SSR) and argue against the limitations of the study in terms of the scope of the research considered. To wit, the author's review a broad swathe of research on the topic of independent reading and suggest that rather than dispensing with SSR, the practice needs to be more closely monitored by teachers so that students are reading books in a suitable readability range and are using the time to read different texts for different purposes. In addition, suitable, just right ''Goldilocks'' words are also important in oral discussions with children and Stahl and Nagy discuss ways to structure oral language activities that target vocabulary growth for children, including the content of the discussions that promote new language usage.
Chapter (10) Promoting Word Consciousness. This chapter includes an extensive array of instructional methods for incorporating activities that can promote word consciousness as an ongoing classroom practice. The activities are purposeful and yet fun, incorporating humor (e.g. puns, homographs, hink pinks) as well as history (e.g. based in mythology, eponyms, borrowed words from other languages), dictionary use as well as more whimsical ways of word detection.
Chapter (11) Teaching Word Learning Strategies: Word Parts. This brief chapter highlights word parts as a significant word strategy that good word solvers use when they run across words they don't know. The authors suggest that teachers not only explicitly teach word parts (e.g. prefixes, suffixes, roots) but also teach how the parts function together by using graphic representations and modeling ways of using the information before providing guided practice leading to students' ability to apply the strategies independently. The authors useful reference tables including a list of the most frequently used affixes in printed school English, prefixes and roots derived form Greek and Latin number words, common relational prefixes derived from Greek and Latin, and a long list of various other prefixes and roots.
Chapter (12) Teaching Word Learning Strategies: Context. In this chapter, Stahl and Nagy consider the usefulness of context as a strategy for word solving, noting that there is no research that supports context as a strategy that children will use independently. That is, children need to be told to use context to derive word meaning. In addition, the authors point out that context can even mislead and suggest, instead, that the focus be placed more on comprehension of the text. They advocate approaches such as Palincsar & Brown's reciprocal reading (1984) and Klinger & Vaughn's collaborative strategic reading (1999). Both invite students to monitor their comprehension and the latter includes an explicit step-by-step strategy for tackling unknown words or ''clunks''. The work of Goerss, Beck & McKeown (1999) is also considered as it promotes an interactive process that supports student engagement while pressing students to deliberate and reason about word meaning in the context of the larger text.
Chapter (13) Teaching Word Learning Strategies: Definitions. How best to employ dictionaries and the difference between a dictionary definition of a word versus our understanding of word meanings are highlighted in this chapter. Again, Stahl and Nagy suggest a supporting roll for dictionaries rather than dictionaries as the starting point for understanding words. They revisit the role of context and of word parts as they influence our understandings of word meanings in terms of how words are used and suggest that students be taught to ''triangulate'' word information using context, word parts and dictionaries to construct comprehensive word meanings.
Chapter (14) Conclusion: Matching Instructional Approaches to Students. The final chapter of the text provides a summary of categories of words and how to teach them. The typology of words include: high-frequency words, high-utility general vocabulary, important content-area vocabulary, words requiring some explanation, words that provide opportunities to demonstrate or practice word learning strategies, words that illustrate the power and beauty of effective word choice in writing, and words that don't need to be taught. Ways to identify these categories as well as best teaching practices are listed.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Emily Duvall, a former special education teacher, is a doctoral candidate in the College of Education at The Pennsylvania State University, the department of language and literacy education. Her research interest is in the potential offered by a dynamic assessment version of high stakes reading tests for elementary children with learning disabilities in order to satisfy multiple stakeholder needs. Ms. Duvall's theoretical framework is in the development of democratic-hermeneutic activity theory which focuses on the work of Vygotsky, Gadamer and Dewey and the possibility of marrying sociocultural theory with hermeneutics to consider the ethical frames of teaching and learning in neoliberal times. Other academic interests include the historical and critical analysis of special education policy, the pedagogical application of Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences to curricular design and development for children with dual exceptionalities, and authentic reading and writing experiences for pre-service teachers. Ms. Duvall currently teaches instructional methods classes in elementary reading, writing and language arts for preservice teachers.