Robust Words: Words that Make Kids Smarter

I used to lead my second grade remedial reading students down the hall to a tiny room, one that I was lucky to have at all. And in that closet-of-a-room I opened up a whole new world of written language – one concept at a time – using a multi-sensory reading approach that tapped auditory, visual, and kinesthetic/tactile learning channels. For most of them, I think it stuck.

How exciting for emergent readers to blend sounds into words and words into sentences. Decoding, however, is just the first step. Next comes comprehension. Kids have to be able to make sense of written text. They need to be able to “see” mental images of what they’ve read and draw on prior knowlege to make meaning. I remember listening to one little boy read a decodable text story that I’d written. Decodable text uses only letters, sounds and language concepts that have been previously taught. It gives kids lots of practice with new learning and builds fluency and confidence. The story was about two brothers, Bud and Chad, who visited a fireman named Jim Smith. Jim lifted Bud and Chad up onto the seat of the fire truck and let them steer the wheel.

The student, a boy of about eight, looked up from the story. His eyes widened, as though he’d witnessed a miracle. “I can see it in my mind!” he announced. The light bulb had turned on.

No matter how much progress that little boy made in phonics, however, if he did not understand the meaning of a word – even a single syllable word – he could have trouble understanding the text.

They call it the Matthew Effect in Reading, a term coined by psychologist and reading researcher Keith Stanovich. Taken from the Bible, it means that those who have – in this case, reading ability – will get more, and those who do not have, will lose even what they started with. How can this happen to sweet little children, just learning to read?

It’s simple: kids don’t read enough. According to the research, children who read independently for about five minutes per day will gain in roughly 300,000 words per year. Those reading for 65 minutes per day take in 4 million. Big difference.

All that exposure to words helps kids comprehend more. Imagine you’ve just read an article about honey. You love honey and want to find a local source to help your family fight seasonal allergies. Searching online, you find a guy in town to buy from. His website talks about how bee pollen helps fight allergies. The following day you’re sitting in the dentist’s office reading a Time Magazine article about colony collapse disorder. Your interest is piqued because you had just been researching honey. After your appointment you go home and tell your spouse about the story. Not only did you learn that honey production is in jeapardy, but California’s almond crop, which depends almost entirely upon pollenation by bees. And on it goes. Even as an adult, you are building knowledge and excitement.

Comprehension helps create a positive learning cycle. It makes kids want to read more. The more they read, the more they will want to read. They will talk about what they’ve read and share their knowledge with others. And they will do better in school and on tests. Kids who don’t comprehend what they read end up reading less, and the cycle becomes a negative one that can have an impact across a lifespan.

Imagine nine-year-old Emma is reading a story about a princess and her brother, the prince. Every day she mocks his red curls. He vows to banish her when he is king. Emma does not understand the meaning of “mock” or “banish.” She thinks the princess has curled his hair and the prince plans to pay her back when he is king. She gets test questions wrong because she guesses at word meaning. She wishes she didn’t have to read at all.

What sorts of words help kids improve comprehension and their love of reading? ROBUST WORDS! Word like “mock” and “banish.”

I first heard the term “robust words” several years ago at an International Dyslexia Association conference. An educator led a session on closing the achievement gap, the difference in achievement between kids from middle and high income families and kids at the low end who are normally exposed to far fewer words.

What are robust words, anyway, and why do they matter? They’re words that pack a lot of meaning, and usually fall somewhere between the mommy-daddy vocabulary kids take to kindergarten and the jargon of a post-doctoral research fellow.

As a former reading interventionist, I know that some children can decode like little banshees but can’t tell you what they’ve just read. Some of the problem stems from a lack of practice making mental images; but part of it is the lack of word meaning skills.

Think of vocab like a thermometer, with extremes on either end. You can “go” out to the old barn, or you can trudge, mosey, stroll, march, scamper, dart, sprint, etc.

How’s the weather? It’s not just good or bad – not if you want to challenge your child’s inner word-wizard! It’s got to be agreeable, pleasant, enjoyable, exquisite, worrisome, deteriorating, ominous, harsh, horrific… Get the idea?

One exposure is not enough to make a new word “stick.” During the week, point out the word on radio and TV. Use it in conversation with family and friends so that your child overhears. And use it with your child in context. Don’t try to teach vocab in isolation. Ask your child questions that prompt the use of the new word: Would you say the weather looks ominous today, or is it just generally bleak?

I used to make my kids “Word Wizard” notebooks. Staple together several half-sheets of lined paper. Have them decorate a cool cover with the words “Word Wizard” on it, (a recycled file folder works). You can search their reading material in advance for robust words they don’t already have in their vocabulary. Make a list and as they read – and you discuss word meaning – they can jot down these words and simple definitions in their “Word Wizard” notebook. When the notebook is full, it’s time to pick out a chapter book. (Our Friends of the Library book store was my favorite place to shop – still is.)

If you are not sure your child understands what he’s reading, ask him to draw a quick picture on a piece of paper. Ask what color the dog is; if his ears are long or short and if he’s on a leash. Get him thinking and involved. And on a positive learning cycle.

Word knowledge not only makes reading more enjoyable, it gives kids an edge. Increasing your child’s word power could bump him up a reading level, improve his book reports,essays and college entrance exams. It could even help him – or her – land a job. FFG


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