By MARY COCHRANE
You are reading an article, a book or the newspaper, and you come
across a word you don't recognize. What do you do?
something people do all the time," says William Rapaport, associate
professor of computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied
"You come across a word you don't know, you decide if
you want to understand the passage, you need to understand what the word
means, but it's either not in the dictionary or you are too lazy to look
it up. Or you go to look it up and you can't understand the meaning from
the dictionary anyway and there's nobody around to ask."
why Rapaport and colleague Michael Kibby, professor of learning and
instruction in the Graduate School of Education, have spent years
researching a concept called contextual vocabulary acquisition, or CVA,
which readers can use to figure out meanings of unfamiliar terms. Now
the pair plans to turn its findings into a curriculum designed to
improve reading skills for students nationwide.
clues in the text surrounding an unknown word to discover its
meaning—is "not a once-in-a-while thing," but a commonly practiced
technique, Rapaport says.
"Most of our vocabulary—around 90
percent—is acquired this way: People know the meanings of more
words than they are explicitly taught, so they must have learned most of
them as a byproduct of reading or listening," according to Rapaport.
But socioeconomic class has "a huge impact" on how many words a
person will learn, Kibby says. Studies show young children of
professional parents hear an average of 47 million words, as opposed to
welfare homes, where those children hear just 11 million words.
"We believe there needs to be a constant barrage of words in school,"
Kibby adds. "Teachers need to make words of primary importance. I used
to think teaching reading is the most important thing in the world. In
the last 10 years, I've changed to thinking that teaching the words of
the language is the most important thing we can do for students."
Current reading methods are either "quite vague" or seriously flawed
when it comes to teaching vocabulary, according to Kibby and
"One of the strategies that I like to make fun of goes
as follows: Step one, figure out the part of speech of the unknown word.
Step two, look at the grammatical structure of the sentence. Step three,
look at the surrounding text to find information that might give you
spatial or temporal information, whatever other clues you can find. And
step four of this strategy is 'guess.' When I tell this to computer
scientists, they all burst out loud laughing. You can't have a computer
program guess without telling it how," Rapaport says.
their CVA computer program, Rapaport and Kibby used "think-aloud verbal
protocols" to see how advanced readers use reasoning and other cognitive
processes, and how they apply their "prior," or personal, background
knowledge to define unknown words.
One think-aloud exercise
involves a scene from Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur," a novel
about King Arthur, which begins: "Right so as they sat, there came a
white hart running into the hall with a white brachet next to
Using CVA, readers can look for clues about what
"brachet" means in subsequent text, such as the next sentence "The
hart went running about the Round Table...the white brachet bit
him." Most readers will correctly assume from this sentence that the
brachet is a living creature, and then will read "the knight arose,
took up the brachet, went forth out of the hall" to discover the
brachet is a smallish animal.
The final clues appear in the
sentences "the white brachet...bayed at him" and "a
brachet...and other hounds came behind," revealing the brachet to be
Kibby and Rapaport are not alone in their plan to improve
schoolchildren's vocabulary and reading scores. The National Assessment
of Educational Progress (NAEP) has developed a new reading assessment to
begin in 2009, and Kibby, who served on the committee that completed the
framework of the new assessment, is working with another committee to
create the test questions for the vocabulary segment.
he adds, couldn't be better.
"If students don't have a strong
vocabulary, if they don't know what words mean, they won't know what
things are, how things move around, where they fit in the world, and
this results in a tremendous amount of ignorance that is very hard to
overcome," Kibby says.