A Vertical Look at the Vocabulary Standards

A Vertical Look at the Vocabulary Standards
[1,521 words]


        The first strand I would like to examine in detail is vocabulary.  Contrary to practice in the classroom, nowhere in the standards are word lists, quizzes and tests even mentioned, although these are tried and true methods of assessment and certainly could be used to measure vocabulary growth.  The stance of the standards, I would argue, leads another direction.  When read vertically, they imply a series of sophisticated word attack skills to be used by readers, not of lists, but of texts.  Very early in this continuum, the focus moves to a steadily deeper look at language and how it means. 

By 3rd grade, students are tested on their skill at determining meaning from context [1.6] and their use of a dictionary.  The other standards, however, encourage a look at language that is much more sophisticated; it assumes that students can deduce meaning based on their existing knowledge of prefixes and suffixes [1.8] and antonyms, synonyms, homophones and homographs [1.4].  While this knowledge may come to the student via lists or exercises, it is put to use in his every reading of grade level appropriate text.

            By 4th grade students are introduced to word derivations (origins, word histories or etymology), and the idiomatic nature of language [1.2].  Make no mistake about it; this involves a highly sophisticated look at the language.  They are introduced to roots, specifically the Greek and Latin roots which dominate academic language [1.3].  By 4th grade they are using a Thesaurus [1.5] and understanding that a single word may have multiple meanings [1.6].

            Grade 5 introduces abstract language [1.4], so much a part of collegiate and post-collegiate education, and the figurative use of language, which is the core of subsequent literary study.   Later, in high school, when students are exploring the ambiguities of complex literary text, the underpinnings of their learning go directly back to this work in 5th grade.

            In 6th grade students discover the influx of foreign words [1.3] into the language and begin to examine the challenges of expository text [1.4], the basis of all textbooks and most academic writing.  They get their first full look at the nuances, or shades of meaning, that will invite them into the complex world of adult thought.

            Grade 7 concentrates on analogical thinking [1.1], the similes and metaphors that not only underpin much creative writing, but also help expository writers make their points. 

            Grade 8 vocabulary work continues a deeper look at the language by combining already learned elements, such as comparative thinking with the nuances of words [1.1].  It also helps students connect the history of words with the history of the language [1.2].

            By high school much of the hard work has been done, as vocabulary acquisition is accelerated during the 4th through the 8th grades.  Note that there are only three standards for each of the two levels of the high school standards and they mostly revisit skills students have already learned.  At the 9th and 10th grade level, whereas students have already worked with Greek and Roman roots, now their focus turns to Greek and Roman mythology, as well as Norse mythology, to help prepare them for their later study of British literature [1.3]. 

            The 11th and 12th grade standards call for the student to branch out even further with the acquisition of the technical terms of academic language by pointing them toward etymologies for politics and history [1.1], as well as science and mathematics [1.2], the traditional subjects of the Renaissance university.

            A vertical reading of these standards reveals the richness of this cognitive work and the elegance of its logical approach.  When I see vocabulary lists on Monday and tests on Friday I do not see the connection to the framework and standards.  To revisit the framework only briefly, as I have touched on this in more detail in earlier posts:


Vocabulary knowledge . . . is a direct result of how much a student reads.  The more a student reads, the more the vocabulary knowledge increases [p. 98].


            Clearly the standards have been generated to support this pedagogical view, that reading is at the heart of vocabulary acquisition and time spent on vocabulary study should really be spent on word attack skills and not the words themselves.  Vocabulary growth is the direct result of independent mastery of increasing complex text.

            I know what you are saying now: “My students cannot do this; they never learned this in the lower grades.”  I know this not to be true as I have observed many hours in elementary classrooms.  The students are learning these skills.  When President Bush introduced the “No Child Left Behind” legislation, he referred to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  He was referring, of course, to inner-city and minority schools, as well as those populated with English language learners.  I would like to hijack his language and use it to refer to teachers with low expectations of student achievement.  No child ever learned anything from a teacher who thought he couldn’t.  While I was in the classroom, I was always amazed when students couldn’t do what I thought they could.  Aim at your grade level standards and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many students can hit the target.


            Please read through the standards below with a vertical sense of logical sequence and with the philosophy of the framework in mind.



Vocabulary and Concept Development

1.17 Identify and sort common words in basic categories (e.g., colors, shapes, foods).

1.18 Describe common objects and events in both general and specific language.


First Grade

1.17 Classify grade-appropriate categories of words (e.g., concrete collections of animals, foods, toys).


Second Grade

1.7 Understand and explain common antonyms and synonyms.

1.8 Use knowledge of individual words in unknown compound words to predict their meaning.

1.9 Know the meaning of simple prefixes and suffixes (e.g., over-, un-, - ing, -ly).

1.10 Identify simple multiple-meaning words.


Third Grade

1.4 Use knowledge of antonyms, synonyms, homophones, and homographs to determine the meanings of words.

1.5 Demonstrate knowledge of levels of specificity among grade-appropriate words and explain the importance of these relations (e.g., dog/mammal/animal/living things).

1.6 Use sentence and word context to find the meaning of unknown words.

1.7 Use a dictionary to learn the meaning and other features of unknown words.

1.8 Use knowledge of prefixes (e.g., un-, re-, pre-, bi-, mis-, dis-) and suffixes (e.g., -er, -est, -ful) to determine the meaning of words.


Fourth Grade

1.2 Apply knowledge of word origins, derivations, synonyms, antonyms, and

idioms to determine the meaning of words and phrases.

1.3 Use knowledge of root words to determine the meaning of unknown

words within a passage.

1.4 Know common roots and affixes derived from Greek and Latin and use this knowledge to analyze the meaning of complex words (e.g., international).

1.5 Use a thesaurus to determine related words and concepts.

1.6 Distinguish and interpret words with multiple meanings.


Fifth Grade

1.2 Use word origins to determine the meaning of unknown words.

1.3 Understand and explain frequently used synonyms, antonyms, and homographs.

1.4 Know abstract, derived roots and affixes from Greek and Latin and use this knowledge to analyze the meaning of complex words (e.g., controversial).

1.5 Understand and explain the figurative and metaphorical use of words in context.


Sixth Grade

Vocabulary and Concept Development

1.2 Identify and interpret figurative language and words with multiple meanings.

1.3 Recognize the origins and meanings of frequently used foreign words in English and use these words accurately in speaking and writing.

1.4 Monitor expository text for unknown words or words with novel meanings by using word, sentence, and paragraph clues to determine meaning.

1.5 Understand and explain “shades of meaning” in related words (e.g., softly and quietly).


Seventh Grade

1.1 Identify idioms, analogies, metaphors, and similes in prose and poetry.

1.2 Use knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to understand content-area vocabulary.

1.3 Clarify word meanings through the use of definition, example, restatement, or contrast.


Eighth Grade

1.1 Analyze idioms, analogies, metaphors, and similes to infer the literal and figurative meanings of phrases.

1.2 Understand the most important points in the history of English language and use common word origins to determine the historical influences on English word meanings.

1.3 Use word meanings within the appropriate context and show ability to verify those meanings by definition, restatement, example, comparison, or contrast.


Ninth and Tenth Grade

1.1 Identify and use the literal and figurative meanings of words and understand word derivations.

1.2. Distinguish between the denotative and connotative meanings of words and interpret the connotative power of words.

1.3 Identify Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology and use the knowledge to understand the origin and meaning of new words (e.g., the word narcissistic drawn from the myth of Narcissus and Echo).


Eleventh and Twelfth Grade

1.1 Trace the etymology of significant terms used in political science and history.

1.2 Apply knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to draw inferences concerning the meaning of scientific and mathematical terminology.

1.3 Discern the meaning of analogies encountered, analyzing specific comparisons as well as relationships and inferences.

© Jack Farrell, Conejo Valley Unified School District, 2004