Occasionally Words Resemble a Scramble of Letters

I remember being assigned to independently read The Scarlet Letter in my 12th grade AP Literature class. I also recall reading the first few pages and being a bit taken back by what felt like an archaic language. It was the first time I had read a book that forced me to slow down in order to get a handle on the author’s word choice. Working through the complex sentences and the period writing was challenging enough and then each page was rich with unfamiliar words. I was pausing to pronounce and make meaning of these untried words. Untried words put a suspension between me and the text. So what did I do when I encountered these words? I skipped them.

What steps could have been put in place to assist me in dissecting the terminology of such dense content? As a trained high school English teacher, I am now able to expertly answer that question for myself and other readers. However, at the time I did not know various strategies to help me pull apart words to make meaning. My experience had been to copy the teacher identified words from the chalkboard, add them to my spiral notebook, and refer to them for the weekly vocabulary test. I would then take that list home, repeat each word and its definition aloud, over and over again and cross my fingers on quiz day that I could keep all those terms and definitions straight in my head.

Was I successful in AP Literature? According to the grade book, I was a proficient performer. However, what I know to be true about my vocabulary experiences is those words did not remain with me. They did not implant themselves in my personal word bank. Those words were learned by rote for a grade and most of them escaped me because no associations were being made. And because of that disconnect, author meaning was lost in parts because without complete contextual understanding, I was only capturing pieces of the intended message. And I was a proficient reader. How must our novice readers feel? Those unfamiliar words appear as a scramble of letters.

Maybe my English teacher assumed we had been taught vocabulary strategies before finding ourselves in her class? Regardless, what was lost was adequately equipping us with the skills necessary to analyze those models. Her approach was not altered to help us enter the piece at our readiness level. The target audience was the future literature majors in the class while all others were finding themselves frustrated with the unfamiliarity of the vocabulary and therefore disengaged from the teacher-selected model.

Years later I continue to see numerous classrooms where vocabulary is being taught in isolation and without useful practice. Students are given a list of words on Monday. And like my educational experience, the interaction with the words is limited to copying dictionary definitions, completing undemanding worksheets, and finishing with a Friday assessment. The result is that students are reaching a level of frustration that creates self-disappointment and resistance toward reading. An appreciation for reading is being lost because our students are not feeling successful.

Vocabulary is the foundation of reading success. As a literacy consultant, what I know to be true is that students should be using multiple strategies like stopping and checking for understanding, working cooperatively, organizing their thinking, generating and answering questions, and summarizing to help them make meaning of these unfamiliar words. As an English teacher, I know it’s my responsibility to be a teacher of literacy strategies and to give students opportunities to practice them. Literature is only one means to help my students become literate. All students need to be prepared to read, write, speak and listen in an environment that extends beyond my classroom. Our audience is broader than the future Nathaniel Hawthornes in the classroom.

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