Vocabulary: A Synonym for Success

A new study shows why simply sounding out the words doesn't cut it.

A knowledge of vocabulary reflects how well students read. (Photo:Getty Images)
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

An important lesson stuck with Francie Alexander from her teaching days. She learned that "vocabulary is the currency of the classroom." Alexander taught kindergarten through college kids before becoming the chief academic officer and SVP of education at Scholastic, Inc.

Vocabulary is essential to reading comprehension, she says, and when it comes to literacy, kids in the U.S. rank in the middle of the pack.

Students can't just sound out the words, they need to understand what they mean. Results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which Alexander helped sheperd, reiterate this idea.

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A sample of 213,100 fourth-graders in public and private schools, and 168,000 eighth-graders, were tested. The results show that we have a long way to go.

On average, eighth-graders scored 265 out of 500 in vocabulary and fourth-graders averaged 218 out of 500. Some of the difficult words for fourth-graders to comprehend included eerie, flourish, and prestigious. Eighth-graders had a hard time with words such as urbane, responsible, and tolerate.

The test also revealed that female students on average have a greater knowledge of vocabulary than male students. White and Asians students scored higher than African American and Latino students, and students eligible for free or reduced school lunches had lower scores than their peers.

In our homes and schools, Alexander says, "we need to be even more energetic and purposeful" about teaching kids the words they need to be successful. We need to explore ways to "wash kids over with words."

Don't discount some of the tried and true tools like a dictionary or thesaurus, she says. And parents—"read, read, read to your children."

Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com

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