In its recent reading assessment, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) included a measure of vocabulary comprehension “that aims to capture students’ ability to use their understanding or sense of words to acquire meaning from the passages they read.” The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report last year comparing results from the 2009 and 2011 exams testing the vocabulary comprehension of US fourth and eighth graders. The report came to a concerning but rather unsurprising conclusion: American students scored poorly in both years, with no significant change in performance from 2009 to 2011.

“There is the expectation that students would know all of the words that were assessed. The lower the percentage of students who get these questions correct means they do not know enough,” said Cornelia Orr, executive director of the NAEP Governing Board. The Governing Board oversees the NAEP, which is essentially a neutral standardized test designed to represent a description of skills and knowledge that students should have acquired by certain pivotal points in their education. The Secretary of Education appoints the members of the Governing Board, which acts as an independent entity to determine the framework and specifications for the assessments. The NAEP is administered by the Commissioner of Education Statistics, who heads the NCES, the research division of the Department of Education.

According to the NCES Nation’s Report Card, in 2009 the NAEP compiled data from a representative sample of 116,600 fourth graders and 103,400 eighth graders. In 2011, the representative sample was comprised of 213,100 fourth graders and 168,200 eighth graders, showing an increase in the sample size—the number of students taking the assessments—but not in actual scores. The average vocabulary comprehension score out of 500 points for fourth graders inched down from 219 in 2009 to 218 in 2011, while the average for eighth graders remained constant at 265. Even fourth and eighth graders in the 90th percentile averaged only 266 and 311, respectively, in 2011—down from 269 and 314 in 2009. Basically, as Orr put it, students aren’t learning enough vocabulary. Educators should be especially alarmed about the implications of the report when considering the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which (in most states that have adopted them) is either already underway or will be within the next year or two.

Another distressing facet of the report is the effect of wealth and class as they correlate with students’ performance on vocabulary assessments. For example, of the fourth graders who scored below the 25th percentile, 73 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, and, of eighth graders who scored similarly, 68 percent were eligible.

So, what should teachers and administrations do? Sharon Darling, president of the National Center for Family Literacy, commented, “We need to look outside what teachers can do and look at out-of-school time in a new way. We need to look at activities that are fun and engaging.” However, according to Margaret McKeown, a learning research professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, there is an abundance of untouched literature and studies on teaching vocabulary. McKeown also notes that oftentimes the vocabulary words taught in classrooms are simply words that students already know.

Implementing Darling’s suggestion may produce a challenge, particularly with parents and guardians who hold multiple jobs or work long hours, or who aren’t home as often. It seems that the real problem lies in trying to engage children in learning about vocabulary in a memorable way beyond their current knowledge, and encouraging an expansion of that repertoire in the years to come.

Did You Know?
Unfortunately, the language gap between those of differing socioeconomic backgrounds can start as early as 18 months old. A new study published by Developmental Science and led by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, showed that by the age of two, children from homes whose median income averaged $69,000 had learned 30 percent more words than those whose home’s median income was around $23,900. These numbers are even more unsettling when it becomes clear that, according to the Southern Education Foundation, the population is low income in one-third of the states in the nation. Additionally, a study that tracked children from age three through middle school showed a strong connection between a student’s vocabulary test scores in kindergarten and his or her reading comprehension scores in later grades, showing that the gap tends to widen as time goes on. However, experts say that the more parents talk to their children, the more they can close this literacy gap and improve their child’s vocabulary, regardless of income status.