Reading and Knowledge
Often students will ask me to read an essay or paper and give them feedback on the content. About five years ago a student came in with an assignment where the teacher had given each student a slogan from a business or non-profit to use as inspiration for an essay. The student’s phrase from the Red Cross was, “The greatest tragedy is indifference.” Based on the assumption that the word indifference meant “not different” the student wrote a lovely essay about diversity. Sadly, I had to tell the student that the word indifference meant the lack of care or concern, not the lack of diversity (also a great tragedy). This student had just five words to read and comprehend; however, her missing vocabulary for only one word changes the entire premise.
Author Daniel T. Willingham writes that [reading] “comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge.” The lack of knowledge Willingham refers to in this op-ed can be poor vocabulary, or it could be the reader lacks the background knowledge to enjoy a story. For instance, my background knowledge of baseball would make some books exhausting. However, I can certainly reach some of my readers with a baseball book due to both interest and prior knowledge.
Adding to Students’ Vocabulary
How can we help struggling students not to give up when a book is too hard? What happens when a student encounters a new word? Is the student excited to define the word, or is there great frustration? I learned new words just this week while reading fiction. One of the more unusual words was “petard.” The phrase is actually “hoist with his own petard.” My friends who are Shakespeare scholars would say, “Of course, from Hamlet.”
For me, it is exciting to dig for the information and learn new words and phrases. I hope to find ways for my students to be as excited as I am in enlarging their vocabulary. Electronic reading enables me to find definitions expediently. Before e-readers I had to have a dictionary handy while reading; now one can simply highlight a word for the meaning. In addition to on-demand vocabulary, found in digital readers, here are some strategies for Using Technology to Build Vocabulary.
Is There a Place for “Bad Words?”
One of my favorite YA novels is Feed by MT Anderson. This book is excellent in making the point for the need to dig deeper to get at the facts. We might, however, have parent objections to Feed primarily due to the expletives in the first section. Even though Feed begins with what seems to be excessive swearing, the language is in place for a reason. It seems the language indicates ignorance and lack of vocabulary and knowledge on the part of the characters blindly following “the Feed.” In addition, to the swear words Feed has a host of made-up futuristic slang that is specific to the book. This slang may be a challenge for some, and you could suggest an online glossary to help initially with comprehension.
In September, Merriam-Webster announced that they added more than 840 new words to the dictionary including “hangry” and “bingeable.” With so many new words it is hard to keep up with our ever-changing vocabulary. Often students use slang or text shorthand so much so, that I am now consulting the Urban Dictionary at least once a week.
For more information about reading comprehension and the importance of background knowledge see these articles.
- Are We Thinking about Reading Comprehension All Wrong?
- Why Background Knowledge is Crucial for Literacy.
Author: Hannah Byrd Little
Hello, I am the Library Director at The Webb School of Bell Buckle. I use my past experience in college and university libraries to help my current students in school libraries transition into college, career, and life. I am currently the lead Senior Class Adviser for the Capstone Project. I also served at the state level with the Tennessee Association of School Librarians executive board from 2009-2013 and was the TASL president in 2012. I am certified as a Library Information Specialist for PreK-12th grade, have a BS in Communications with a concentration in Advertising and Public Relations, a BS in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Education and Information Systems and a Masters in Library and Information Science.