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Polyserous: Vocabulary or Spelling Instruction?

By age 3, when many children enter early preschool, youngsters from well-to-do families have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, compared to 749 words for children in working-class families and 525 words for children on welfare, according to a seminal 2003 longitudinal study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, authors of the 1995 book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.

Clearly, there is a need for vocabulary instruction in our schools, as this old study from 1995 shows. The time allotted for Language Arts instruction in elementary schools is so limited—if classroom teachers teach spelling or word study, do they have the time to teach vocabulary too? Or does it get lost in the shuffle?

My friend’s child came home with a list of Word Study words the other day that I found intriguing. Among them was the word, “polyserous,” a word that is not in the Webster’s online dictionary. When I googled “polyserous,” it appeared to be a medical term associated with tuberculosis. The assignment was not to talk about the word and discover its meaning. Instead, the goal of the homework assignment was to be able to spell “polyserous” correctly on the test on Friday. Hmmm.

I questioned the purpose. It seemed as if the only goal was for the students to spell the word correctly on Friday. “Polyserous” is an obscure word. I wondered, shouldn’t the hope be that the students would at least be able to use the word in their spoken vocabulary (whenever discussing tuberculosis)? Perhaps in their writing? Maybe understand the meaning of “polyserous” if they ever come across it when reading? Or maybe, “polyserous” was just a poor choice and the goal of the instruction was confusing.

If not intentionally addressed by teachers, students’ vocabulary development often gets lost in the shuffle of the overwhelming content we are expected to teach. Recent research highlighted in an Edweek article found few formal, structured lessons on vocabulary during [language arts] time. Instead, most teachers defined words during ’teachable moments’ that came up as they read stories to students or held discussions. That informal style led to major discrepancies in both the number and difficulty of vocabulary words, with some teachers discussing only two words a day and others as many as 20.

In this day and age, with the spell check program on all of our digital devices making strong spelling knowledge a thing of the past, maybe we should be spending more time on vocabulary instruction than spelling instruction. What do you think? Check out DSC’s Words in Action program if you agree.

Isabel Sawyer, PhD, is a Regional Director at Center for the Collaborative Classroom. She presents keynotes, workshops, presentations, and professional development for teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators across the country. Previously Isabel worked as a lead instructional coach for Albemarle County Public Schools and as an instructional coordinator for an inner-city school in Charlottesville, Virginia. Isabel holds her PhD from the University of Virginia and serves as an adjunct instructor in UVA's Curry School of Education. She has presented at local, state, and national conferences and worked with schools across the country as an independent consultant. 

 

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