Writing in The Age, Brendan James Murray, author and teacher, laments the vocabulary gap between advantaged and disadvantaged Year 12 students sitting this week’s Victorian Certificate of Education Literature exam. He notes that students are not allowed to take a dictionary into the exam, but mentions that they nonetheless possess an invisible dictionary:
“…studies have found that children from high socio-economic backgrounds hear many thousands more words than their less advantaged counterparts.”
Murray is concerned that this will further disadvantage students like the ones he teaches:
“Will the lack of a dictionary further disadvantage Victoria’s most vulnerable students? A selection of vocabulary from the unseen portion of last year’s examination gives a clue. Anybody who has taught disadvantaged children will know the challenges they face when confronted with words like ambiguity, archetypal, and transience.”
Although never made explicit, we can infer Murray thinks that at least part of the solution is to provide students with dictionaries.
Dictionaries are no substitute for vocabulary
We know from research on students learning words that Murray’s proposal may not work. It can be challenging to understand dictionary definitions that often require an understanding of related vocabulary. In addition, dictionary definitions cannot offer the rich range of contexts that learning a word by repeated exposure can offer.
E D Hirsch describes a study by George Miller and Patricia Gildea in which students were asked to use a dictionary to help them write sentences. Some of the examples Hirsch cites include:
“Mrs Morrow stimulated the soup.” [i.e. stirred it]
“Our family erodes a lot.” [i.e. they eat out]
“I was meticulous about falling off the cliff.”
A Year 12 Literature student may do a better job with a dictionary, perhaps, but it seems unlikely that handing over a dictionary in the exam is going to go anywhere near close to compensating for words missing from a student’s vocabulary.
You cannot always simplify the language of the assessment
One potential approach to leveling the playing field is to take careful control of the language used in the assessment. This has happened, to some extent, in one of the subjects I teach: mathematical methods. Until 2014, there would be a question every year about the exploits of ‘Tasmania Jones’, an explorer modelled on Indiana Jones, and his attempts to retrieve an emerald for a South American tribe or to build a ‘thrilling train ride’ in the Alps.
When I attended a feedback meeting for teachers in 2015, I was told that Jones would no longer feature in future exams because he potentially disadvantaged students for whom English is not their first language. Not only did Jones’s questions require lengthy blocks of text to set them up, he is an archetype familiar to members of a particular culture (even though, to be fair, most students found him baffling). It was a smart move to show him the (trap)door.
And yet it is hard to see the justification for dialing down the verbiage in questions on a Literature exam. And you have to wonder whether the vocabulary disadvantage actually becomes apparent far earlier i.e. at the point students first pick up one of the books they are going to study for the course.
No easy fix
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix for a lack of vocabulary in Year 12, especially in Literature where vocabulary is intrinsic to the subject.
Instead, the only way that this gap can be addressed is by incrementally building vocabulary throughout the entire course of schooling. Some children will still enter school with an advantage over others, but we can do plenty to build the vocabulary of the less advantaged.
Some of this work will involve the intentional teaching of words. However, a lot will come from regularly meeting words in the context of knowledge-rich domains such as literature, history, science, geography and the arts.
The problem that is faced by anyone making such an argument is that a knowledge-rich curriculum consisting of standard subjects is not a fashionable proposition in Australia, particularly at primary school. Instead, as epitomised by the Gonski 2.0 review of the curriculum, advocates tend to request an expanded role for the supposedly ‘general’ capabilities of critical thinking, problem solving and so on. These capabilities are not really general and are, in fact, highly subject specific.
In turn, literacy instruction shies away from knowledge-rich domains. There is a widespread belief that you can teach students how to comprehend a text by teaching them reading comprehension strategies. Yes, such strategies do have a limited positive effect, but repeated rehearsal does not magnify this effect because students still hit a limit based upon their vocabulary and world knowledge. Time would better be spent building this vocabulary and knowledge.
Vocabulary growth is a matter of social justice that should interest anyone who claims to be concerned about social justice. It is a matter of equality of opportunity. I do not claim that schools can completely level the playing field. They cannot. But schools can do more than they are at present and a purposeful, sequenced and knowledge-rich curriculum would be a good start.