The Ottumwa Courier

December 7, 2012

Drop in vocabulary scores ‘troubling’

Teachers say more programs, more reading outside of school will help

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Vocabulary is a large part of the overall reading picture, area educators say.

But according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ report released Thursday, Iowa fourth-graders fared worse on the vocabulary portion from 2009 to 2011.

“If you understand the words, it’s going to make it a lot more interesting to keep reading,” said Julie Lawrence, a fourth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary School in Ottumwa. “If there’s holes as you’re reading along and you don’t know what a word means, it’s not going to give you that richness of the story if you don’t have that.”

Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass has called the results “troubling.”

“Our NAEP reading scores have been flat since the early 1990s, and these vocabulary scores show we’re not moving in the right direction,” Glass said in a news release. “We must act on these results.”

The vocabulary portion tests students’ comprehension of word meaning, which ties in to their performance in reading comprehension. NAEP began the vocabulary portion in 2009.

Statewide, fourth-graders scored 219 last year, a statistically significant drop compared to 223 in 2009, according to the report.

Nationally, the average score of 217 had not changed since 2009.

Lawrence said she’s not sure why vocabulary scores have dropped.

“I know we’re working harder than ever helping our kids learn how to read,” Lawrence said.

Teachers are starting a new program, “Words Their Way,” to help students study words, as well as “comprehension think alouds” and 45 minutes of silent reading.

“We’re working with kids one on one a lot more than we used to,” she said. “Their eyes are on print. [Silent reading is] a time I can work with kids who need extra help. Some kids are reading independently while others are working with the teacher.”

Today, Lawrence’s fourth-grade class also has literature circles, “kind of like book club for adults,” where students read books together and work on vocabulary they find interesting or didn’t know and discuss the story.

“The district is buying lots and lots of books at different levels so kids have books that meet their needs,” she said. “We do so much more now than even when I started, and I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. I think teachers are working harder than ever.”

Jodie Eidahl, Title I/School Improvement Leader with the Ottumwa school district, said Iowa is working hard to become the No. 1 state in education again with new programs, such as Iowa Core (statewide standards and expectations for grades K-12), Iowa Assessments and the possibility of SMARTER Balanced assessments, which will be piloted this spring.

“When you think about student vocabulary, you have listening vocab and oral vocab,” Eidahl said. “Listening vocabulary can start very young, which is why it’s important that students attend preschool.”

Parents should also be reading to their children outside of school, she said.

“Because that listening vocabulary can expand, then they begin working on learning those words and what they mean,” she said. “Then when they reach school, they have the opportunity to connect print to all those words they have.”

Some students come to school with so many more words than others, she said. It’s important because vocabulary has a definite impact on what students read and write.

“Kids still love to read, you just have to find the right fit for them,” Lawrence said. “If a kid likes horses, find them books about horses. I’ve got boys in here who love basketball, so they read ‘Million Dollar Shot,’ which is about basketball. They loved it. That’s what you try to do, is find books that fit their needs, that they enjoy reading, then they’ll want to read more.

“As long as they’re reading, that’s the whole point of it. It instills a love of reading in them. That way they want to read more.”

Samples of vocabulary questions, answers

Samples of vocabulary questions and how Iowa fourth-graders scored versus fourth-graders nationwide:

“On page 4, the article says that Marian Anderson performed in many prestigious locations. This means that she sang in places that were: A) far away from each other; B) famous and important; C) open to people of all races; or D) large and crowded.”

The correct answer, B was guessed by only 26 percent of Iowa fourth-graders and 29 percent of fourth-graders nationwide. The majority, 40 percent, of Iowa fourth-graders chose C, as did 34 percent of fourth-graders nationwide.

“On page 3, the author of the biographical sketch notes that E. B. White’s cross-country trip gave him ‘a lifetime of anecdotes.’ The author is pointing out that on the trip White: A) caught a life-threatening illness; B) had many experiences to talk about; C) made several very good friends; or D) learned to get by on little money.”

The correct answer, B, was guessed by 80 percent of Iowa fourth-graders and 79 percent of fourth-graders nationwide.