But Karen Bromley, a professor in the School of Education and Human Development, said elementary-grade teachers have largely ignored vocabulary building and their students are, literally, at a loss for words.
"We need to rethink the way we teach vocabulary," said Bromley, a former third-grade teacher and K-6 reading specialist, who conducts research on how children acquire and expand on language skills. Research dating from the 1940s through today indicates that vocabulary constitutes about 80 percent of language comprehension and 65 percent of fluency " the ability to read, speak and write confidently.
"Some surveys suggest that kids from impoverished homes learn, maybe, 3,500 words a year," Bromley said. "Kids from more privileged homes learn about 5,000 words a year. And even if kids move out of the poverty level, their word-learning rate doesn't increase. It's always lower."
Schools can help bridge that gap. However, the textbooks and basal readers Bromley has examined mainly teach vocabulary through word lists, which teachers cover through study and drills. Her research indicates that successful vocabulary building requires teachers to help students actively use their current knowledge to learn unfamiliar words.
"If you just give kids the pronunciation and the meaning, they haven't learned the word," she said, adding that vocabulary words are best learned by being spoken, written and used to create sentences and stories.
"When teachers teach a word, they define it, and maybe use it in a sentence," she said. "But if I were going to teach you the word 'intercollegiate,' I would think aloud for you, by telling you how I figure out and remember what it means."
When teachers lead students to consider what they may already know, " that interstate refers to a highway, which runs among states; that collegiate sounds like college; and that the -ate suffix denotes an adjective " they can deduct the meaning of intercollegiate, which means "among colleges."
"Sixty percent of word meanings can be inferred from looking at the Greek and Latin roots," Bromley said. But often, teachers don't address this because many lack the basic knowledge of English word origins and structures' and too many lack passion for the language altogether.
In Bromley's survey of 100 teachers, when asked what made them good vocabulary teachers, only three cited a love for words. "That was disquieting to me because a reading teacher ought to love the language," she said. Approximately 70 percent of the words students need for everyday reading and language use have multiple meanings. But students need to understand the words far beyond their meanings.
"Kids need to be actively involved with words in a variety of contexts, so that they learn the structure, the grammatical function, the visual components and use," Bromley said. "Right now, vocabulary is at the forefront of what we're understanding and ought to be an important component of reading. It's part of the Reading First initiative of the No Child Left Behind Act."
The "Reading First" initiative, created by the U.S. Department of Education, has the goal of ensuring that all American children can read by third grade.
Bromley suggests other ways teachers can teach vocabulary: introducing word games, letting children act out meanings of words and encouraging them to talk with each other more in class about the results of such learning experiences as science experiments.
Children who don't grow up speaking English face greater vocabulary obstacles, and Bromley suggests pairing them with native speakers to correspond via "buddy journals" in which they write to each other. Often, both students improve skills.
A student in the Johnson City School District, diagnosed as learning disabled, was paired with a Kurdish student, for example. After the two boys worked on their buddy journal for several months, Bromley was surprised to discover writing by the American boy that looked Arabic. The Kurdish student had taught him to write, "How are you? Will you come to my house this weekend?" in another language and alphabet.
Teacher education, Bromley said, needs to sensitize future teachers to the lives of each student they're teaching. Diversity training, she says, is making significant inroads. "When we understand where students are coming from, what they live with day by day, we can better accommodate their needs," she said.
As for parents, Bromley said they can help their children build vocabulary by reading with them and, yes, by turning off the television. "Engage your child in conversation, because vocabulary flows from the spoken to the written word," she said. "Kids need to be actively engaged in vocabulary learning."