In conversation with Dr Danielle Colenbrander - vocabulary for reading instruction

Dr Danielle Colenbrander chats with us about the role of vocabulary in reading instruction [Duration 26:52].

Transcript

Shannan Salvestro

Hello, this is Shannan Salvestro, Literacy Coordinator, K to 12, for the New South Wales Department of Education. This is the literacy and numeracy podcast. Today I am talking to Dr Danielle Colenbrander from the Macquarie University Centre for Reading. Hello, Danielle. Thank you for joining me.

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

It's a pleasure.

Shannan Salvestro

I thought we might start with you introducing yourself, just a little bit of your background and why you have an interest in vocabulary, which we're talking about today.

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

Okay. So I research, the links between vocabulary and reading comprehension. And I come from a speech pathology background and I've always been someone who loves words and is interested in reading. But when I was doing my speech pathology degree, I kept, we kept learning about spoken language and I kept thinking, well, why aren't we connecting this to reading? Why isn't this why aren't these two areas of skill coming together more? And then I started to read more and more about it and discovered that there was research out there, basically telling us that, spoken language and written language are really closely interconnected with each other. And so then, that's why I became interested in researching how these connections develop and more specifically how we can improve spoken language with the aim of improving reading comprehension.

Shannan Salvestro

So let's start with, I guess the overarching question, why we're actually speaking to you today, is why is vocabulary important for reading?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

So words are kind of the gateway to meaning. If you can't read the words on the page, if you can't understand what the words mean, you can't get any further with your reading comprehension. You can't form complex propositions. You can't make inferences, you're stuck. So it's absolutely crucial to reading comprehension. And so, there's a theory called the simple view of reading, which states that reading comprehension is made up of two basic areas of skill. Your ability to read the words on the page and also your spoken language. And interestingly, vocabulary contributes to both of those things. It really cuts across both of those areas. So, for example, children who have better vocabularies tend to become better readers because, first of all, if you have a broader vocabulary, you often have a more fine grained understanding of the sound structure of words. And this can help you learn the relationships between sounds and spellings. And also, once you read, if you come across a word that you're not familiar with, like the word 'tongue' for example, if you try to sound it out, you will come to something like 'ton-g-you'. But if you know the word, tongue, and you look at the sentence context, then you can access your spoken vocabulary and go, 'oh, I think that's probably the word tongue'. So that's another way that vocabulary can help you to actually read the words on the page. But of course it also helps us with understanding what we read. So, we've got to have a very good understanding of the meanings of the majority of the words on the page. Otherwise, as I said, we can't put those meanings together to understand complex sentences and to make inferences and to get the general idea of what is in a text. So it's very important to all aspects of reading comprehension.

Shannan Salvestro

I love that little explanation there because I was really getting a strong feeling of how it all actually works together.

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

It's all completely intertwined and we see that across development as well. So, children who have better vocabulary become better readers. They read more and they understand more of what they read, so they are equipped to learn more words from what they read and then they get better and better and better. Whereas unfortunately the opposite can also happen if children don't have that word knowledge and that reading knowledge, they can fall behind other children. So these things are all very closely intertwined and what we really want to do is catch that as early as possible. And prevent this, it's called a Matthew effect of the rich getting richer and instead turn it into a virtuous circle where we're taking advantage of these connections and trying to help them improve each other.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah. So not only is there an importance, but it obviously sounds so complex. So learning vocab, where do we start?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

Oh, that's a good question. It is so complex because it's, not just about knowing the word, meaning it's also about knowing the written form of the word, knowing what it sounds like. And when you come to word meaning, there's all these complexities. When do we use the word? How do we use the word? How does it connect to other words? Does it have more than one meaning, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So I think the answer is that you need to take all of these things into account when you're teaching vocabulary. So there's one method of vocabulary instruction, it's called robust vocabulary instruction and it was developed by researchers called Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown and their colleagues. And in this method of instruction, what we aim to do is teach children really rich concepts of word meaning, not just definitions so that they have these flexible understandings of words that they can actually use in context. And at the same time they learn the spoken forms and they are exposed to the written forms. So you kind of bring that all together when you're explicitly teaching the words.

Shannan Salvestro

So you're getting, so actually, even though we're talking here about how vocabulary helps us for reading, that there is that reciprocal effect where it, you know, it, it's also that written vocabulary that, that we are also, improving.

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

Yes, absolutely. And, and they, they feed into each other. So the written form of the word helps children, and adults, to remember the spoken form. It acts as kind of a hook because if you think about the spoken form is kind of transient in time and there's so often we hear a new word and we think we know how to pronounce it, then we see written down, we go, 'oh no, I was wrong'. So that helps us to just stick that spoken form in memory and it can also help us to stick the written form. So there's two sides to the coin there. Knowing the spoken form helps you learn to read, but then also when you have the written form, this helps you to learn to understand the word.

Shannan Salvestro

Hmm. So robust vocabulary instruction. I know that includes the idea of tiered words, tier one, tier two, tier three words. So that's where that comes from? Can you explain that idea a little bit more?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

Yes. So, Beck and McKeown and colleagues, they invented this concept of word tiers. So a tier one word is a very basic word that we would expect pretty much everyone to know, like table or horse or something like that. And then a tier two word is a more sophisticated word, kind of a literary word that adults, even adults don't use very often in spoken language, but you come across them in written language like mysterious for example, or distinguished or something like that. And a tier three word is a word like mitochondria or something like that. Very specific to exactly to particular domain subject specific. And so they, when they were developing their explicit vocabulary instruction, they got challenges from a lot of people saying, well, this is time consuming and you can't teach every word. And of course you can't, there's far too many words. So then they said, well, we think that these are the words that have the most usefulness, for reading comprehension. And these are the ones that, children just won't necessarily pick up on their own. So those are tier two words.

Shannan Salvestro

Okay. So that's why we have that focus on tier two words in our instruction.

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

Yes. And it might be the case that, a teacher's got some children in her class who don't know some of those tier one words and they might need a bit of extra help there, but then as well, tier three words, like mitochondria for example, for the general average person, they don't use the word that much, but if you're in a science class, then you would use it. So those words need to be taught as well. But maybe by the subject specific teachers. So every, in every subject there's a need for vocabulary instruction and to make it direct. And those words, those tier three words are often really fundamental concepts to how we understand a subject. And so they need to be taught explicitly as well.

Shannan Salvestro

So do we teach kids words that they probably won't be able to read independently yet? For example, like when, when you mentioned that you may have some kids who actually still need some support with, with those tier one type words. And we might be giving them a little bit of focus on that. But at the same time, are we still, are we still exposing them to those other say, say tier two words that they will see in books even though they might not be able to access them themselves independently?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

Absolutely. And I would bring this back to this simple view of reading. So we've got two basic skills underlying reading, the ability to read the words and the spoken language that helps us to understand. And when you've got really young children or children with reading difficulties, their spoken language is often in advance of their reading skills. But this doesn't mean we should limit their vocabulary knowledge to their reading knowledge. When there's two different kinds of reading practice we can do. So there's reading practice, which is to improve fluency and accuracy of your word recognition, which would be at their reading level, but then they can still benefit hugely from being read to and being exposed to those sophisticated spoken words and concepts in a context where someone's reading to them. And then that just means that when their reading ability improves and they are reading more sophisticated texts, they're ready for that. They know these words and they can access the meaning straight away.

Shannan Salvestro

Great. So what are the features of a, of a good, explicit, of good explicit vocabulary instruction? Do you think - according to you...

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

According to me and Beck and McKeown...and many others (laughing)

Shannan Salvestro

(laughing) Yeah! What can you share?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

So the first thing is that it really does need to be explicit. So even for kids who have reasonably good vocabularies for their age, that they might know a lot of words but they might not know them so well they might not understand the nuances of that word meaning. And then of course we have children who come to school, whose vocabularies are possibly behind some of the other children and who wouldn't come across those words that much if they don't read independently themselves. So it needs to be explicit. It needs to be very interactive. Children need opportunities to use the words. And this is really fun. In my experience, this is hugely fun and they are not used to necessarily, just talking about words.

So one example I can give is, for the word conceal. So if you're learning the word conceal, you would start by kind of giving them a nice clear definition that the child can understand. And that's really important because that helps them to access a new concept using knowledge that they already have. So a definition for conceal might be to hide something. Everyone can understand that. And then you give them some examples of the word in context and then you would play a game. So you might say, okay, I'm going to say some examples and if you think you would conceal something in this situation, then you say 'conceal' and otherwise you say nothing. So they're also practicing the spoken form. And I do that, and then you say, okay, what if you're walking down the street and the back of your pants splits and there's a big hole, what do you think? Would you conceal it or not? And then it would say conceal. And then you say, 'why?' And then they have to give you reasons. And that again, builds, builds the depth of their knowledge. And these activities are really fun. There's lots of laughter involved. And even in talking about the words, you're building more of their oral language. So it is very rich. There's lots of interactivity there.

It's also important that there's the words aren't kind of forgotten once you teach them because word knowledge is incremental. We build up the complexity of our word knowledge. Every time we encounter a word in a different context, and then if we don't use it again, it kind of fades out of our memory. So we need to have, regular revision and it's better to do shorter bursts of instruction more frequently than to have like one big chunk of vocabulary instruction because they'll forget a whole lot of those words. So you want to just remind them and bring it, bring it back to the forefront of their memory and as I was saying before, it's really important to teach words with their written forms. So to take advantage of all that interactivity between the written and the spoken forms, so that when they come across those words, when they are reading that they can recognise the words.

Shannan Salvestro

And kids really do love learning new words. What words to teach? Does that come from a list? Does it come from where, where would that decision be best to come from?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

So again, it's about the usefulness of words. And that means they should come from things that they're going to learn about in class and the books that they're going to read in class, the subject matter that they're going to discuss in class. It's always about stuff being really useful in context and seeing things in words in lots of different contexts. So we, I would suggest, and the research would suggest that you get these words from the books that you'll be working with on with the students.

Shannan Salvestro

Excellent. So what about the role of morphology? I know I'm finding that really interesting at the moment. Why is that important when learning words?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

So let me start by explaining a bit about what morphology is. So morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language. And this includes prefixes such as re or un. It includes suffixes, such as 'e', 'r', like in teacher, or 'i', 'n', 'g', like in running. And also bases, sometimes called roots. And so these can be, free bases, which are just words as, as we know them, like teach in teacher, they free to stand on their own or bound bases, like 'spect' in spectator, which need to have, other, either prefixes or suffixes added to them so that they can form whole words. And there's a very regular, they actually add a lot of regularity to the language.

So there are rules by which we can bind together different prefixes, bases and suffixes. And this even affects spelling. So for example, say let's go back to the suffix. 'ing, 'i', 'n', 'g', if you add a suffix that begins with a vowel to a word that ends in a single silent 'e' like hope, h-o-p-e, then you lose that single silent 'e' and then it's spelt 'h-o-p-i-n-g'. So if children know about that, yeah, that helps their spelling. It helps their reading and it can also help them to pick out the bits of words that they might understand to decipher what a word means. So if we can think again about the word spectator, if they know what SPECT means and they know a-t-e and o-r, those suffixes, and they come across the word for first, the first time in a text, then they might think SPECT means something like to watch or to see. And 'ator' is like somebody that does something. So spectator is probably someone who is watching something and then they can check this in the context of the text. And voila, they've got an idea of the meaning of the word.

So it gives them a tool for working out word meanings on their own, which, and we were saying before, you can't teach every single word that a child needs to know. So we also want to teach them some ways of working meanings out on their own. And this is one way of, of doing that.

Shannan Salvestro

So when we teach words in the early years when, when children are learning to read versus later on when I guess they're, you know, they're reading to learn and they're using, reading, in a different way, what's the difference in the way we might teach.

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

So the fundamentals of instruction are the same that you want explicit instruction that's very interactive. You want short bursts frequently and all of those sorts of things. But the difference is that with older children, they might be, you might be getting them to do some independent reading and then teaching some words in depth afterwards or you might pre-teach some words before they do the reading. But with children who, don't really, aren't particularly great readers yet, just learning to read, then you can read to them and you can give them the context for those words and I think we were talking about this a little bit before, even if their spoken language is slightly in advance of their reading skills, it just prepares them for what's ahead and makes it possible for them to recognise and understand those words, in the future when they across them.

Shannan Salvestro

So I'm wondering about when we're learning words, when we say that it's a good strategy to also be practicing that written form of the word, does that necessarily mean that we're learning to spell the words?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

So when you are working with children in the early years of school and they're still in the process of learning to read, then, as we talked about before, their spoken language is going to be in advance of their reading skills, so it would be a bit unusual to teach them quite a sophisticated word that has maybe very regular spelling and then ask them to try and learn and remember that spelling and what you're doing at that point in time is to try and get them to understand the meaning of the word. The presence of the written form is there as a kind of mnemonic to help their memory but it's not necessarily that they need to know the spelling of that word at that age. At that point they're focusing on something different. When it comes to, word reading and spelling. When children are older and their spoken language skills are at about the same level as their reading skills or they're fluent readers, then yes, then it could well be a part of vocabulary instruction that you get them to learn to spell it as well when they learn it. But when they're younger, it's really, as I said, just an aid to memory when they learn the meaning.

Shannan Salvestro

What about kids who are better, or independent, readers, what do they need? How can we further cater for them?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

Yeah. So I think what you can do there is, I mean, the kids like that often have a great interest in words and they would love to learn more about words. I certainly would have loved that, and so I think what you can do then is give them more independence and complexity so they could find words themselves. They could read more advanced texts and pick out words that they are interested in learning more about. For example, with the words that they are learning, they could go into greater depth, they could look for different synonyms, they could look at perhaps the history or the origin of the word. They can use that in independent writing exercises. So there's always a way to enrich their knowledge of words. And of course, you know, we never stop learning words. So even for children who are pretty advanced and know quite a lot of words compared to other children their age, there's still so many more words out there that they can learn, which can again, even further enrich their understanding and what they can use in their own writing.

Shannan Salvestro

And we're always learning new words. Even even, at my age, I'm still learning new words. It's amazing. What are your thoughts on assessing vocabulary?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

So that is a big question and I have to say there's not a lot of, I wish I could come in and be like, this is the way you've got to assess my own experiences of assessment, no one test is ever going to do everything you want it to do. So in terms of standardised assessments, they're designed to often give you a snapshot of the, roughly, the number and types of words that a child might know compared to other children of the same age, so they can be good in a very broad sense, but if you're trying to measure what children have actually learned, they're not particularly helpful because they wouldn't necessarily contain the words that we've actually taught. And what we do know from lots and lots of studies of vocabulary intervention is that children learn exactly what you teach them and they don't generally, there's no massive flow on effect to new words, unless you teach morphology. But yes, with specific instruction of specific words over time, they can certainly build up a bank of words and that will probably help them to learn more words because it will help them to understand text more and from those new texts to learn new words. But when you're teaching words explicitly, they tend to learn the words you teach them. And if those words are not in the test, then it's just going to show that there's been no learning when there might have been learning. So you, I would recommend that you test the words that you've actually taught. And this does unfortunately involve a little bit of work in designing assessments. So it depends also what you're trying to know about what they've learned. So you might want to know, okay, I've taught these words, how much do they know about these words? And then something like a definition task where you literally just ask them to define the words verbally or in writing is a really great task because you get a rich amount of information about what they have actually learnt. But it's difficult to score. So very time consuming to score. So you need to have a rubric that you use and it is going to take a bit of time, but there are guidelines out there for rubrics that you can use. There's one author Dawna Duff has just released a paper on this, which is actually very helpful. So that's one option. Another thing you can do is you can develop your own multiple choice task and these can be quite flexible because you can, you can change up the difficulty depending on how many response options you have and also the types of response options you have. So if you want to just know in a very rough sense do the children, know anything about these words, you could give two response options, maybe two synonyms and just get them to circle which one is correct. Of course, you do have the problem of chance responding where they just guess. So then if you have four response options, it means there's less likelihood of them getting it right when they guess. But then it's harder and it's more time for you because you have to come up with all the response options. but that is something that you can do. And then in terms of your choice of response options, if you choose to provide one of the response options that's actually quite similar in meaning to the actual word, it's going to be really hard. And if there's a lot of distance in meaning between the response options, it'll be easier. So there are lots of choices you can make there. But definitions generally we would use for looking at depth of knowledge and multiple choice just as a kind of quicker assessment of, do they know anything about the word? And if you want a really sort of quick and dirty measure about how much the whole class has learned, you can actually get kids to rate their own knowledge. So you can do it on a scale of, I don't know it at all, up to know it well and could define it and they can just tick where they are. And you're going to get some kids who don't know what they don't know. Of course then you're going to get other kids who might just want to say they know it. But on average across the whole class, you'll get a pretty good idea of how many kids seem to know that word.

Shannan Salvestro

So Danielle what are some final messages that you think could be, that are important for us?

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

Okay, so, a couple of things. Firstly, as we've said before, vocabulary knowledge is an unconstrained thing. It's a lifelong thing. You're always building new words learning new words, building your vocabulary. Vocabulary learning is never finished and vocabulary learning takes time and we need to constantly be refining our knowledge. I think it's something that has to be ongoing. It's not enough just to say, well, we're going to do six vocabulary lessons and then that's your vocabulary done. It isn't like that. It's got to go throughout the whole of schooling in every single subject. I mean, in my ideal world! It's so important because as I said before, it's a gateway to reading comprehension. It's how you access meaning. So it's super, super important. But having said that, there is more to reading comprehension than just vocabulary. Children do need to put the words together into sentences, sentences together to make inferences. So oral language as a whole is important for reading comprehension. And it comes back to, again, all those links between spoken language and written language, they are so tightly interconnected with each other. And the discussion that comes with vocabulary instruction and classroom discussion as a whole, is in itself a really, really, really important learning and teaching tool. And if you have those discussions and children are responding to you and they are using, using new words, using complex sentences, asking questions, thinking about why all of that is feeding into their reading comprehension. So all of that is really, really important and we always want to remember that written and spoken language skills are so tightly knotted together and we want to turn that into a virtuous circle.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah. Excellent. Thank you Danielle. I think that that will give teachers a lot to think about and some inspiration. I thank you so much for talking with us today. Thank you very much.

Dr Danielle Colenbrander

My pleasure.

Shannan Salvestro

For teachers in New South Wales, if you would like to learn more, look at the links in the podcast notes and visit the literacy and numeracy website

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