With research finding vocabulary is a key predictor of reading comprehension, the National Assessment of Educational Progress – aka the nation’s report card – has, since 2009, expanded its methods of assessing students’ vocabulary to include more testing of students’ ability to understand words in context. According to a recently released analysis, fourth graders with the strongest vocabularies scored highest in reading on the 2011 NAEP. Similar results held for eighth graders.
With research finding that 3-year-olds from low-income families, on average, have vocabularies roughly half as large as those of their more affluent peers, the NAEP results remind us of the importance of starting early to build children’s language skills.
Overall, one third of the nation’s fourth graders scored proficient or above in reading on the 2011 NAEP. Massachusetts posted the nation’s best performance, but only half of fourth graders scored proficient or above in reading.
“At its most fundamental level, reading comprehension (the ability to understand what one has read) requires knowing the meaning of words,” a NAEP summary states. “To comprehend what they read, students must integrate their knowledge or sense of words as they are used in particular passages to understand the overall topic or theme. Understanding key words that support the main idea or theme and details that contribute shades of meaning further enhance comprehension to create a richer experience. This association is reflected in the results that show that on average students who performed well on the vocabulary questions also performed well in reading comprehension.”
Here are some results from the 2011 NAEP:
- Fourth graders who scored above the 75th percentile in reading comprehension had the highest average vocabulary scores. Fourth graders who performed below the 25th percentile in comprehension had the lowest average vocabulary scores.
- Achievement gaps were also apparent. White and Asian children, on average, had the highest fourth grade vocabulary scores, and Latino, black and Native American children, on average, scored lowest in vocabulary. Fourth graders who are eligible for free and reduced price lunch had lower average vocabulary scores than children who are not eligible.
- The scores also reveal a gender gap. Fourth grade girls had higher average scores in vocabulary than fourth grade boys.
In its coverage of the changes in the way NAEP assesses vocabulary, Ed Week quotes a literacy expert who served on the NAEP committee that made recommendations on reading assessment. “Margaret McKeown, a senior scientist for learning research and development at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a statement that the new assessment is distinct from traditional vocabulary exams in three ways,” Ed Week reports. “First, it’s not based on a list of specific words. Second, the ‘target words’ appear within the context of a passage, ‘rather than in isolation.’ And third, the NAEP items emphasize an understanding of a word’s use within a given context, rather than the definition of the word on its own.”
So what kinds of words did fourth graders know in context?
- Three-quarters of fourth graders tested recognized the meaning of these words:
- Created, spread, underestimate
- Between half and three-quarters of fourth graders recognized the meaning of:
- Cleared, clenched, struggled, staggering, sparkle.
- Fewer than a quarter of fourth graders recognized the meaning of:
- Barren, detected, flourish, prestigious and eerie.