If you haven't yet heard my speech on the importance of reading, it's time. I am a BIG proponent of making sure students are reading to improve their skills and comprehension, increase their vocabulary, make life connections, and enjoy the pleasures of getting lost in an adventure or traveling to another place or time without ever leaving their seat! Reading is a skill that will benefit us in any job market and any profession. And, reading makes us better writers! You wouldn't try to play a sport without watching it a few times to see what the game looks like, right? Well, when we read, we are training our brain to see what good writing looks like. And, reading for pleasure is a hobby we'll enjoy for the rest of our lives.
Reading also builds a student's "background knowledge", or schema. This is important so that students can connect concepts to experiences, words and events that are already part of their "mental filing cabinet". A large part of reading comprehension is due to a student being able to relate to, or understand a concept by digging into that filing cabinet. Students with limited background information to draw on may struggle with making the connections needed to fully comprehend a passage they've read. The quickest way to build that background knowledge is not by experiencing it, but by reading about it.
What many people may not realize is that reading fiction (novels, children's books, classic literature) teaches empathy. According to Keith Oatley, Cognitive Psychologist at the University of Toronto, engaging with stories about people "can improve empathy." He says when we read about other people, we begin to "imagine ourselves in their position (what the kids in school call "making connections"), which enables us to better understand people." How does this happen? "It is because readers are experiencing a lot of situations in a short amount of time as they read, far more than if we spent our lives waiting for those situations to come to us." So, bottom line is that reading is good for more than just academics.
According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language has over one million words. But a typical adult will have a usable vocabulary of only 10,000 to 20,000 words. That leaves a lot of words in our language that aren't being used. Exposing young children to new words helps them to not only learn the word, but to see the word in action, specifically how the word is used. That's a great thing, especially as our students will be exposed to "higher level" words through standardized testing.
Remember that reading and reading comprehension spans all subjects - even math! Imagine struggling to read through a math word problem and not understanding what math calculations need to be done to solve it. Many students struggle with the literacy of math, understanding the meaning of the vocabulary associated with it. These domain-specific words should continue to be used daily so that they become a part of the student's vernacular.
An easy way to look at vocabulary taught in school is to bucket it into the groupings outlined in the Common Core curriculum:
- Tier 1 words are basic words that commonly appear in spoken language. These would be common words in our vocabulary. Students are already familiar with these words. For example, "house", "they", and "equal".
- Tier 2 words are high frequency words used by mature language users across several content areas. These would be words such as "establish" , "obtain",and "verify". As you can tell, these words would be extemely useful for students to be able to use and understand, as they woud be used in many different subject areas ("cross-curricular").
- Tier 3 words are low-frequency words that are domain-specific.These would be words associated with a particular content area, such as medical terms, music terms, or words associated with a particular occupation. For example, "mitosis" in science, "civil" in social studies, "personification" in language arts.
In the classroom, the focus on vocabulary in the middle grades and middle school will be on the Tier 2 and Tier 3 words, to help the students expand their understanding of these higher-level words. One way is through repetition. Using the word when speaking will help the student begin to associate the word with it's domain and usage. At home, a way to help students is to review these Tier 2 and Tier 3 words and use them in discussions. Using the words in conversation will help students understand both meaning and usage. An easy way to see the words in action is by reading different types of material. Both fiction and non-fiction will expose the students to many Tier 2 and Tier 3 words.
I truly believe that reading is the answer to succeeding in school and in life!