Saturday, December 31, 2016

The 5 Year Vocabulary Experiment

Vocabulary plays a special role on cognitive skills tests, standardized tests, and academics.  This skill stands alone.

For starters, the author of the COGAT said in one of his research papers that a simple vocabulary test has about 75% of the predictive power of a cognitive skills test in identifying academic performers. Since 66% of the test is math and spacial diagrams, that's saying a lot.

The authors of Welcome To Your Child's Brain report that a child who lives in a house full of words at age two is going to be a stronger reader and do better academically.  I wish I discovered that before my youngest turned 3.

I found these two gems doing early research 5 years ago.  Within weeks, we started three initiatives: Vocabulary Workshop, the Word Board, and intermittent discussion of vocabulary words (to make up for oversights at age two on behalf of the parent.)  For the 3.9 year old, we started phonics as a precursor to Vocabulary Workshop.  Based on what I found out, standard phonics didn't cut it.

Math is fairly straightforward to teach at high levels.  Visual spacial skills are teachable, although it takes a bit longer.   The trick with both of these subjects is to teach learning and thinking, the underlying cognitive skills, and don't focus on the subject matter.  How did a genius get so good at thinking?  Develop a crash course or boot camp and put the other child through it.

If these tests are looking for a child likely to excel in school because they've read a lot in the last 3 years, as evidenced by a big vocabulary, then more work needs to be done on the verbal side.  It's hard to give your child a big vocabulary in 2 months if they haven't been reading and talking a lot for the last 2 years.  I could do the same thing in math, but can you really fake verbal intelligence with a crash course?

Vocabulary Workshop was a surprise not because of the words, but a surprise in the skills my kids developed doing the questions.   It was a little like the SAT in that regard.  This is not expected in a book for K or 1st grade.  It ended up like that because some of the words did not appeal to my children, but they enjoyed doing the exercises for the challenge of it.  When they hurried through just to finish, their little minds worked the hardest, and they figured out how to answer the question when they weren't sure of the words.  The lesson, however, wasn't finished until they could get past the Word Board.

Vocabulary was a constant throughout the year, test prep or no test prep.   I like to think of the exercises as mild test prep for the verbal section, and learning new vocabulary was test prep for next year's test.

In the beginning, all words went on the Word Board.  A lesson was complete when the Board was clear.  The Word Board also took on anything we encountered in school science or home math.  Little by little, the Word Board became unnecessary.  Then Vocabulary Workshop wasn't needed.  They also used Wordly Wise at school ( a dry, boring version of Vocabulary Worksop), and studying for quizzes took less and less time.  These weren't needed because after years of this process, when they saw a word, they got it, and that was it.  If a technical word comes up in some work, and we come back to it weeks later, they remember it.

The other thing that we got from the Word Board was speaking ability.  They had to stand their ground in front of the Board and explain each word or it would remain on the Board.  If the word was at all interesting, the definition wouldn't suffice.  I needed some compare and contrast or examples to be satisfied that they know it, and this might include use of additional new vocabulary that applies, which, by the way, would also go on the Word Board.   I held their feet to the fire, like a Board, as in Board of Directors, and they were the CEO of Convince Daddy, Inc.   For 3 straight years.

Off and on we discuss words.  It's easy when reading together, it was intense during phonics (because phonics is nothing but words), and it's harder when the children read on their own.   I wish I could do a word a day, but I'm not that organized.  If a new word comes up, I expound and add synonyms. As far as I can tell, children have an unlimited ability to pick up new words given the opportunity.  The best words include some historical, emotional, analytic or imaginative content, because they stick.

My kids talked me into changing the cover of my phonics book, from it's current Graduate Phonics look to something that looks like it's for kids.  It kind of is, it kind of isn't.  There are 100 lessons for kids, but on the opposite page are definitions and comments for parents about the words to build the discussion.  What would you tell your kid if the word "vat" appears and why would your three year old or four year old need to know vat?  Maybe the parent is sleep deprived like we were and is having a hard time thinking at all during phonics, or maybe they just came from India or Northern Africa and are a bit fuzzy on American English.  (From what I can tell, they're not.)  Well, if you see the two comments that start this article, age 3 is the perfect time to catch up on vat and anything else you can sound out, site words, math words, and a few goofy words thrown in like "yolk" with instructions on what to do next involving an egg.  It's the perfect time to catch up on a vibrant discussion.

The older child went straight from phonics straight to 3rd grade science because he ended up in an accelerated program.  I really wish we prepared for this ahead of time. His Word Board had at least 40 of words on it, and they were all really hard.  It took me another 2 months before I realized that he had 3rd grade language as well, and then the word board fell off the wall from the weight of the sticky notes.

I've heard from hundreds of parents who followed my recommendations, and all of the comments and emails were at the beginning of the process.  I now take you into the future.

The 3rd grader goes to theater camp each summer, and he most likely is given the lead.  There's nothing special about him except his ability to memorize his and everyone else's lines on sight.  Plus, he can stand his ground and give them back convincingly.  Many of the words on the word board required a facial expression or a bit of acting to demonstrate, which is appropriate for a 3 or 4 year old trying to provide definitions for shock, stun, surprise, grim, frown, etc.   I don't think his advantage is going to last, because there are kids who will devote much time and effort to this acting, but it's fun to see for now.

The 6th grader and I are doing a special project with a 9th grade math book called memorize all of the vocabulary words before next year.  I can't divulge any more at this time.  We're on page 150 right now.  At least once a week, I invite him to choose between math and this exercise, and he chooses science because it's easier.  He will make 10 or 15 flash cards, then I'll wait a few days and quiz him. I hold the flash card, ask for a definition, and he provides one.  When I try to read what he wrote on the back, he will correct me and provide a more full definition based on what snippet he read.  Then I'll wait a week and quiz him to see if he really knows these words.  He does.

Plus, as a bonus, we're learning a bit of science.  It's really interesting stuff.  I think he'll enjoy it, especially since he'll have the vocab down for Day One.  If I have any readers who love science, you're probably reacting with shock and horror.  I would probably react this way if someone did this with advanced math.  The little one and I stumbled across Tetrahedron a few weeks ago and are 2 weeks into a tangent.

Tonight, I revisited Hoggie's gifted page and read some of the content on profoundly gifted kids.  I don't have profoundly gifted kids.  I wouldn't even call them gifted.  Instead of Gifted and Talented, I would call it Capable and Effective. Same test scores, less negative side effects. I'm still put off by the article on Hoggie's page that explains why parents should do nothing to prepare their kids for an evaluation.   Granted, it might take a year or more, but parents should be doing everything they can to develop these skills in their children.   Writing your children off at whatever level they currently have is neglect, or maybe negligence.


  1. Hi Norwood:
    As a professor myself, I completely agree. There is something in the statement "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"

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