Why Unlocking Vocabulary is Key to Bridging the Gap for Students

The hard thing about waiting three months for iReady's classroom diagnostic data is not knowing how students will do after 10 weeks of intervention.

My state and building use iReady diagnostics three times a year for READ Plans and intervention data. (more on come on iReady-both loves and dislikes)

As a special education teacher, I only use this data to compare students to their peer group and see what kind of gains they had over the year. (I have a whole blog post coming on how my building uses iReady.)

My building relies on this information to make predictions about State testing outcomes and interventions.

For me, I look at the overall gains my students make on the five categories assessed each time. This year, I made a huge shift to building and creating a solid foundation in phonemic awareness and phonics. 

The macro data showed students made huge gains when using both Heggerty and Yoshimoto Orton-Gillingham. We lived in controlled decodable and built vocabulary through morphology. 

What didn’t improve???

Student’s vocabulary 

On iReady, students’ scores either dropped or maintained. 

I’m the first to tell you that you should never, ever make significant instructional decisions on a single piece of data. It could take you off a cliff.

But if you layer in IEP goal data and it shows everyone either made or is on target to meet their goals well within their IEP cycle …

Could layering in something, not a change continue that growth????

Could it support and build students’ vocabulary and not have all the growth drop off???

Why Focus on Vocabulary

When I explain the five reading components to parents, I use a pyramid. Phonemic awareness and phonics are the base of the pyramid. With vocabulary and comprehension coming after. Fluency is needed across all. 

To get to the top of the pyramid, word-level comprehension is needed before moving to sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc. You see where it goes. 

But what happens when you have weak word-level vocabulary????

What then? Let me explain how I landed here ...

All my phonics kiddos were placed in Orton-Gillingham. As the year progressed, the pacing of these groups slowed. In some cases stopping for a week or so on a concept, or phonogram or just working to get them unconfused. (English is so confusing.) 

As lessons got more complex and the more layers students had to work with the more, I noticed other holes. Looking back at my lesson notes and comments about student progress within lessons it became more obvious that vocabulary was one thing students were struggling with.

To be clear, I'm not talking about Tier 3 subject-specific words. I'm talking about Tier 1 words--like chair, boil, broil, etc. (here is my previous post on Vocabulary Tiers)

Yes, about half of those I pull for OG do receive pull-out language support from a Speech-Language Pathologist.

The funny (or head-banging) thing about all their iReady Vocabulary score was the “can dos” all said to teach 5 words and all through read-aloud. (This is a great idea for classroom teachers; not so much for specialists.)

What Does the Research Say

The Science of Reading (SoR) is an evidence-based approach to teaching reading that is grounded in research from cognitive psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience. It emphasizes the importance of systematically teaching foundational skills to help students become proficient readers. One crucial aspect is phonemic awareness, which involves recognizing and manipulating individual sounds in spoken words. 

By explicitly teaching students to understand the connection between letters and sounds through phonics instruction, they can decode words and read fluently. It's essential to provide activities that engage students in segmenting, blending, and manipulating sounds in words to strengthen their phonemic awareness and phonics skills.

Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. It is a critical skill that helps students understand the connection between letters and sounds. Phonics instruction teaches students the relationship between letters and sounds, enabling them to decode words and read fluently. Teachers should provide explicit instruction in these skills, using activities that involve segmenting, blending, and manipulating sounds in words.

Scarbourough's Reading Rope Model of Reading
Fluency is the ability to read accurately, quickly, and with expression. It is developed through repeated practice and exposure to a wide range of texts. Teachers can support fluency by providing opportunities for independent reading, modeling fluent reading, and using strategies like echo reading or choral reading. Vocabulary instruction is also crucial for reading comprehension. Teachers should explicitly teach new words, provide context clues, and encourage students to use strategies like word analysis and context to understand unfamiliar words.

Comprehension involves understanding and making meaning from text. Teachers can support comprehension by explicitly teaching strategies such as predicting, questioning, summarizing, and making connections. These strategies help students engage with the text, monitor their understanding, and make inferences. It is also essential to promote metacognition, encouraging students to think about their thinking and monitor their comprehension. By incorporating these strategies into instruction, teachers can help students become active and proficient readers.

What Does this Mean

SoR and Scarborough's Rope Model of Reading bring a new light to an old question surrounding phonics and vocabulary. The question is how to layer something in that doesn’t take away from the gains students have made.

I don’t know why this group of students have a weak vocabulary. I could blame COVID–these students were remote and hybrid during COVID. It could be the lack of direct, explicit instruction surrounding Tier 1 and Tier 2 vocabulary. Or it could be the lack of helping students make connections to previously taught vocabulary to new words.

Coming this semester, I’ll share how I plan to attack this and build students’ Tier 1 and Tier 2 vocabulary. I hope to find actionable, tangible ways for students to make gains that don’t take tons of time to get the most bang for my buck as a special education teacher all while doing my job as their special education teacher. 

Chat soon-

About Me

Welcome to my all thing special education blog. I empower busy elementary special education teachers to use best practice strategies to achieve a data and evidence driven classroom community by sharing easy to use, engaging, unique approaches to small group reading and math. Thanks for Hopping By.
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