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The Choices Teachers Make

By Carla Kessler
 | Dec 14, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-104252466_x300During 24 years of teaching middle school, my one wish was for more time! Time to spend with students who needed extra assurance or help. Time to plan. Time to review and grade student work. Time to collaborate with colleagues. Time to teach all the standards. Time to cover the content of our syllabi. Time to breathe and have fun. Time, time, time!

Sound familiar?

As a teacher, I never stopped giving up one thing in order to take care of another thing. Children’s lives and learning were at stake! 

I was/am an ELA teacher and worked as a learning specialist and Title I coordinator. As such, prioritizing was something I had to do not only for myself but also for others. Research, along with my experience as a teacher, told me to prioritize word learning. This meant minimizing time spent on close reading and reading strategies. It was scary, and I was fortunate to have a principal who backed me up. I knew vocabulary was vital.

Our school was faced with more than 50% of our readers arriving in sixth grade without skills to learn from their reading. Upon assessing skill deficits, almost all of them were suffering from limited background knowledge—specifically word knowledge—and stuck at a certain reading level, unable to move forward.

I started to experiment. I engaged my students in an assortment of best practices for word learning in my classroom for 14 years, fine tuning and streamlining. My personal action research showed me that spending 90 minutes a week, with the right strategies, could really do it! I made a difference in reading scores in just four months by prioritizing 90 minutes a week for differentiated word learning. And I was able to do this repeatedly over four years (until I “retired”)!

Word learning is the key

At a recent workshop, Kate Kinsella said, "Vocabulary is the silver bullet."

And she’s not the only one. E.D. Hirsch reminded us in a speech to the Virginia House of Delegates, “The persistent achievement gap between haves and have-nots in our society is chiefly a verbal gap. There is no greater practical attainment in the modern world than acquiring a bellyful of words. A large vocabulary is the single most reliable predictor of practical, real-world competence.”

In Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, Robert J. Marzano reminded us, “Direct teaching of vocabulary might be one of the most underused activities in K–12 education. The lack of vocabulary instruction might be a result of misconceptions about what it means to teach vocabulary and its potential effect on student learning.”

So what does a teacher do?

Make time. I know, the most controversial word in teaching—time!

Ninety minutes—join us!

Are you ready to take on the challenge of making more room for vocabulary instruction? Can you make time for 90 minutes a week? Join me and others in a monthlong challenge to spend 90 minutes each week on word learning! Sign up for more information about The 90 Minute Challenge! by visiting my blog page. We’ll send you interactive activities based on best practices, tips, inspiration, and other support along the way.

Let me finish with some final poignant statistics:

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22% of children in the United States are living in poverty.

According to the Heart of America Foundation, 61% of families living in poverty do not have children's books in their homes. Consequently, children living in poverty already have a 50% weaker vocabulary than their wealthier peers at the start of school.

I hope you want to take the 90 minutes to build student vocabulary, but maybe you think 90 minutes is unattainable? Please comment here to tell us what your roadblocks are. We want to help!

Carla Kessler headshotCarla Kessler is the director of Learning at LogixLab LLC, creator of Word Lab Web, and formerly a Title I coordinator and learning specialist. She has been recognized as an Outstanding Educator by Delta Kappa Gamma Society International and has been recognized for her skills as a 25-year middle grade teacher, implementing curriculum that brings measurable results.

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