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Word Work in EL Education’s K-8 Literacy Curriculum: Sublime, and Technical

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    Sarah Norris

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference - the way in which we are like no other life. –From Toni Morrison’s Nobel Laureate speech, 1993.

Since the time of Toni Morrison’s speech, “word work” has come to mean “focused attention to vocabulary development,” which doesn’t necessarily sound sublime. It sounds technical, and separate  from the deep concepts and enduring understandings we hoped to impart by becoming teachers. And indeed, word work can look that way: small squares of paper shuffled and sorted on a desk or a wall; a list of roots; a discussion about what words might mean in other sentences.

In EL Education’s K-8 literacy curriculum, we’ve worked to infuse the sublime, generative aspects of word work with  the more technical, workaday ones.  We view this as connected to our commitment to educational equity, by which we mean “the process of ensuring equally high outcomes for all and removing the predictability of success or failure that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor. Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.” (Borrowing from Unrealized Impact, 2017 and National Equity Project, 2017).

A 1995 study by Hart and Risley found what is now commonly referred to as “the word gap.” Specifically, they found that children from families with low wealth hear 30 million fewer words than families with high wealth. It has since been found that this gap reverberates through early childhood, and predicts later academic success: students’ scores on first-grade vocabulary assessments predict 30% of 11th-grade comprehension (Cunningham & Stanovich 1997).

However, this isn’t a simple story to tell. Framing it as “poor children hear fewer words at home” risks implying that parents with low wealth are doing worse for their children, rather than understanding  that the ways they speak with their children have value in the communities they live in (a classic look at this is Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words).  Identifying children from low-wealth backgrounds as “at-risk” literacy-wise can lead to those students being relegated to a world of word lists, flashcards, and vocabulary study in isolation, denied access to deep study of content that makes the world come alive.

We believe the “word gap” matters, but we do not operate from the simple story. In our curriculum, all students have supported-access to complex, grade-level texts, on topics that matter. Students read multiple texts on a topic, one of the highest-leverage strategies for developing not just content knowledge but literacy skills—reading or listening to a series of texts on the same topic can yield as much as four times the vocabulary growth (Landauer and Dumais 1997; Adams 2009; Cervetti 2015). Word work is integrated throughout, and teachers don’t have to choose between engaging in meaningful content and building discrete skills.

This balance of direct and indirect ways of helping students acquire vocabulary is designed with respect for students and teachers at its core. As one of our curriculum professionals notes: “We believe that all kids, at all reading levels, deserve access to all kinds of words. We don't guard the best, most beautiful, eloquent kinds of words from kids because we’re afraid they can’t handle them.” We believe teachers benefit from knowing what informs the design, how reading texts influences vocabulary acquisition, and what this looks like concretely in the form of strategies for direct and indirect vocabulary instruction. Then, they can best support student development in this “way in which we are like no other life,” as Toni Morrison champions.

Ready to Learn More?

We are offering a free interactive webinar about both direct and indirect ways of helping students acquire vocabulary: "Word Work: Helping All Students Succeed through Effective Vocabulary Development." Our free interactive webinar on Tuesday, February 6, from 3:30PM–4:30PM EST will examine more about how reading texts influences vocabulary acquisition. It will delve into a variety of strategies for direct and indirect vocabulary instruction. Participants will be able to analyze engaging vocabulary instruction in action to determine next steps for their own practice.

Please register here by February 2nd  to attend and take advantage of this exciting opportunity. We look forward to seeing you online!