Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why The Word Board Is So Important

In most school districts, gifted and talented entry is based on the score sheet, and the score sheet includes an a line on it even scarier than test scores:  The teacher rates your child.  It's called the teacher inventory.

It doesn't matter how smart your child or how high the test score if the teacher rating is low.  There is a simple solution to the teacher score.  First, you need a creative, engaged, dedicated student.  That will help. But most of all you need an articulate student who raises his hand first and can express himself articulately at a level far beyond his peers.  Or her peers, as the case may be.

Like everything else that most people think is an innate gifted, talkativeness is a learned skill.

For this reason, The Word Board is much more important that I ever mentioned before.  Here is a little background.

The Word Board was originally conceived as a way to accelerate the process of mastering phonics and conceptual vocabulary in the context of Delia.

Delia was less than two years old at the time.  My child was in a mom and tot group with Delia.  Delia was reading a book, pointed to a picture, and said, "Look mom, it's the Eiffel Tower".  Once the other mothers got over the shock that Delia spoke in a complete sentence, they hovered over the book to verify that it was in fact a picture of the Eiffel Tower.  I heard about it for a week.

At the time, my research consisted of devouring studies and articles on the impact of vocabulary.  In his papers, the author of the COGAT mentioned that all cognitive skills are present during the process of learning to read (a fact known since 1911), that vocabulary is a thread that runs through all parts of a cognitives skills test, that a simple vocabulary test has about 75% of the predictive power of a cognitive skills tests.  I think these are nicely summarized in a chapter of Welcome to Your Child's Brain.  The more talking at home, the higher the level of vocabulary.  A higher level of vocabulary predicts a strong academic performance.  And of course cognitive skills tests are designed to predict academic performance.  The bottom line of all of this is vocabulary, whether you are staring at a figure analogy, a folding question, or a quantitative puzzle.  It's not intuitive until talk through a math question as described in the previous article.  And then it works.

Flash cards are the main competitor of the Word Board, but flash cards are about learning words or sounds or vocabulary.  The Word Board is about learning to think and answering questions.  It's about owning the answer to some inane question I just thought of.  The Word Board steps up to talking, defending, thinking, making things up on the spot.  On the spot is crucial.

Here's how the Word Board works:

1.  You put the unit on post it notes on the refrigerator.  This unit could be a phonics lesson, Vocabulary Workshop, Foss science vocabulary on the rocks unit, Wordly Wise for 6th grade, or freshman Chemistry (before freshman year, of course).  The kid has to earn it before a word comes down.  For a 4 year old, this could be reading the word adequately and making a face (in the beginning, but we're going to ramp up after that) and for a 2nd grader facing a GAT test, it may be parts of used by sounds like made of similar to and all other parts of the analogy skillset.

2.  The parent needs to pick up 2 important skills.   The first skill is to have a book or wiki or online thesaurus or map handy.  If the kid defines sap, that's good for lesson 5, but by lesson 43 "fleck" is going to need some differentiation between spot and bit and all things small.   The kid doesn't know these, so you'll just have to put up some more post it notes for the next trip to the Board.  You are going to do a lot of talking because you are the primary educator of the child.  By the next lesson, the bar just got raised.  In one session ( 2 years later) we started with cobble and pebble, and then I just kept adding words until I ran out of post it notes.   That first year I went from reasonably over educated to All Knowing Knower Of All Things.

3.  The second skill is grilling your child in an encouraging productive way so that the child is unable to leave the Board without a proper dissertation defense of whatever words are there.  As long as you have Zero Expectations and are OK With Mistakes and as patient as a pile of dirt, this will always go well.  With this approach, it's hard to do the Word Board without laughing about something.  I find, however, for most parents, especially the high strung ones with a GAT program in mind, these are totally learned skills.  You will know what I'm talking about when you are talking about the 6 words related to "fleck" and your child remembers zero of these until the third week.

Picture a child with a unit of 10 vocabulary words doing exercises and reciting definitions off of flash cards.  Then picture a child facing those 10 words on post it notes surrounded by 20 more that I just thought of and having to answer a bunch of questions on each all the while I'm sharing things off the map or new related words.  Some days, you may picture silence, but bad days are par for the course.

What I got out of this was a child who woke up at 6:30 am, started talking as he came out of his room, talked non stop the rest of the day and talked for about 20 minutes after his door was shut at bed time.  There's also hyperlexia, but I'll describe that later.  Plus so many words so fast the kid learns to listen carefully and memorize immediately.  But mainly I can ask difficult questions and get well thought out answers that go on for a long time.

Take that teacher inventory.


  1. What's your recommendation for writing and spelling? In our state, the reading assessment for second grade and third grade includes writing and spelling, in other words, you're asked to write answers in writing (e.g., what's the main message of the story, write about characters,...etc.) My children are doing reading and vocabulary workshop on the side but nothing else.

    1. Think of the difference between writing and reading. It's a bigger difference than between soccer and origami or Moscow and the Easter Bunny. They aren't even in the same ball park. Most people assume since both deal with words they must be related, but they are not. Art and crafts are great for writing. The best thing you can do for the type of writing problem you just outlined is to read the above article again. Assuming your kids already have the skill to hold a pencil, writing is all about crafting a response or thought into a sentence or two. It takes a lot of practice and the only ones I know who do this well are either families with lots and lots of lively conversation or kids standing at the word board.

  2. i have a hard time myself coming up with a clear, concise definition for words when my daughter asks "what does that mean?" (particularly for the simplest of words!). any advice on what a typical conversation in front of a word board might sound like and also, do you prepare in advance for a clear definition of the words?

    1. Sounds pretty normal to me. You're basically saying you stink as much as I do. You'd be surprised how much you'll learn in the next few years. After a while, my routine consisted of thesaurus, wiki, sometimes images, and a lot of 'what is the difference between efficient and effective'. And driving or in the middle of the night thinking 'I should have said elaborate. I'll say elaborate next time. Or rivet.' But elaborate and rivet are boring so I have to think of something else. More importantly, I'm looking for one or 2 words to come down on a good day, so this gives each word a few weeks for both of us, and I've got the word board to remind me to use them in a sentence or think about them more.