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Why Most Vocabulary Programs Fail To Work

Feb 21, 2008
Most vocabulary programs fail to help students learn new words faster and there are two main reasons.

1. They make the student start at a point that probably isn't right for them.

2. Students get only a fraction of the repetitions necessary to put new words into long-term memory.

Research shows that children entering the first grade have large differences in their oral (pre-reading) vocabulary. In one study the top five percent of first graders had a working vocabulary of 7000 words. Children in the bottom 28 percent had an average vocabulary of 1500 words. These differences were not, on average, due to IQ (children in the bottom 28 percent learned new words just as quickly as those in the top five percent, once they started school) but to environment- how many hours did each child spend being read to or in conversation with adults?

As a general rule of thumb schools have no idea what the vocabulary level of first grader is. This is mostly due to the fact that it can only be measured orally and they simply don't have the resources to do measure it. When a student is behind in their vocabulary and nothing is done to improve it the will continue to be behind and the problem gets worse and with each new grade as the material gets more and more difficult. What can be done? We must determine what the vocabulary level of the student is and then get them started on a learning path tailored to their existing level of vocabulary. This will rapidly boost their learning of new words. The problem is that traditional vocabulary programs take a cookie cutter approach and try to put everyone through the same path. More often than not the students are presented with a word list that has a bunch of words they already know. Or worse yet sometime they are given a list of words that are way beyond their current level. On one hand they will not be challenged and on the other the will give up. In either case they won't learn enough words to improve their vocabulary.

At this point it's fair to ask what a well designed vocabulary program would look like. One of the most important elements is making sure the student gets enough repeat exposures in different formats to commit the new word to their long term memory. We're not talking about them necessarily using the words in their everyday conversation as much as we're talking about them being able to recognize them when they see or hear them. In the end the student must know the meaning of the word, the proper spelling plus the proper pronunciation. Then when they run across one of these words while reading they will immediately know its meaning and be able to read at full speed.

Finally, learners must find the practice path enjoyable or they will never get enough repetitions to put the new words into long-term memory. Students must "fall in love with practice," in other words, if they are ever going to close the vocabulary-reading gap and catch up to their peers.
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