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Vocabulary skills: More poor kids at loss for words

A classroom Gompers Elementary school 12302 S. State. |  Sun-Times Files

A classroom at Gompers Elementary school, 12302 S. State. | Sun-Times Files

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Updated: January 8, 2013 6:17AM



Most of Illinois’ fourth-graders know what “suggested” and “underestimated” mean when reading them in stories, but not “prestigious”.

Eighth-graders recognize “motivate” but not “permeated.”

And while the vocabulary of Illinois’ young readers is right on par with the rest of the nation, the state’s poor children lag behind.

That’s according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which for the first time Thursday reported vocabulary scores pulled out from the reading tests given to fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders nationwide.

Which is troubling, experts say, because vocabulary is essential to reading comprehension, and poverty keeps rising in Illinois. More than half the state’s 1.95 million schoolchildren qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2012.

“What we need vocabulary for is to make sense of what we read and to integrate words into an overall text to give context, and not just to memorize definitions,” said Margaret McKeown, of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education who helped develop the test.

NAEP broke down by state the vocabulary results out of the reading tests, considered more rigorous than the Illinois’ achievement exam, that are given nationwide as a common yardstick.

Illinois mirrors the national average -- “historically with where we fall in line with these NAEP tests,” said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Illinois students in 8th grade scored an average 266 out of a possible 500, a bit above the national average of 264 in 2011. Fourth graders scored an average 219, just shy of the nation’s 220.

But in 2011, low-income Illinois 4th graders scored just 196 points out of 500, 6 points below the national average, and almost 40 below their wealthier counterparts.

In eighth grade, the difference was 30 points. Neither gap shrunk from 2009 to 2011.

“Frankly none of this is a surprise,” said Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund which advocates quality preschool for all children. “The vocabulary gap is massive by age 3. The fact that you see it in 10th grade and 12th grade and 4th grade – what do you expect?”

By age 3, Rauner said, children of college-educated parents already know 1200 words, but children whose parents are poor know fewer than 300.

“That’s a factor of four, and then you just continue that trajectory,” she said. “There’s just no place in the world where that child catches up.”

The state’s race gap remains mixed. African-American and Hispanic children still lag significantly behind white and Asian children. African-American students even lost a few vocabulary points in fourth grade from 2009 to 2011, but gained a few in 8th. Hispanic children made small gains in both grades. White children outscored African-American and Hispanic children in all three grades in 2009, and both lower grades in 2011. Asian/Pacific Islander students outscored everyone.

Twelfth-grade data was limited; Illinois was among just 11 states that volunteered as part of a pilot program in 2009, the last year they were tested.

Unlike many other standardized tests, the NAEP test given to a wide sample of students statewide didn’t ask about definitions, rather about context of how the word was used in passages. Some of the multiple choice answers even included other possible meanings of the word in question that would not be correct in the context of the provided text.

But how to teach vocabulary to children who, well, struggle with reading?

Expose them, said Dr. Barbara Phillips, a lifelong educator who currently teaches at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest. And the Common Core curriculum adopted statewide this year should help with that, since it encourages and recommends a wide range of literature and real-life text, at each grade level.

“The new words that your parents or your community doesn’t use, you have to learn by reading or having someone read to you,” she said.



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