Category Archives: critical thinking

Vocabulary comes in three tiers

Educated people use a three-tiered vocabulary, according to research* done thirty years ago.

  • Tier 1 words include basic words, the working vocabulary The X factor in type facesof little children. Children do not need to be taught these words; they learn them from interacting with their caretakers and other children.  In kindergarten, some of these words are called sight words.  Usually these words do not have multiple meanings.  Such words include “no,” “dad” and “dog.”

  • Tier 2 words include words we use frequently as adults but which little children do not use. These “adult” words can be used in many contexts.  They are harder for children to learn since they have multiple meanings.  Tier 2 words add detail to our speech and writing and are necessary to learn in order to understand what we read.  ”Obvious,” “complex” and “verify” are examples.
  • Tier 3 words are used infrequently, but are necessary to speak and to read about particular areas of study. In an English class, such words might include “predicate,” “narrator” and “sonnet.”  In a medical journal such words or phrases might include “prefrontal cortex,” “neuroplasticity” and “synapses.”  These are often “idea” words used as scaffolding to build further knowledge.

The Common Core State Standards are asking teachers to teach and use Tier 3 words more.  Instead of saying the “action word,” teachers say the “verb.”  Instead of asking for the “total,” teachers ask for the “sum.”

What this means is that students, beginning in primary grades, are being taught Tier 3 vocabulary words.  Children are expected to know what “analyze” and “cite” mean, and they are expected to use those words, not euphemisms, in explaining their thinking or behavior.  And when words like those appear on state-wide, end-of-year exams, children are expected to know what they mean and know how to respond accordingly.

You, as parents, can reinforce Tier 3 vocabulary by using appropriate academic vocabulary with your children.  Harry Potter is the protagonist of his stories.  Three and two are factors of six.  Anne Frank’s diary is a primary source.  Arthropods have an exoskeleton.

Children need to master certain Tier 3 words in order to understand directions from teachers and directions on tests.  We will talk more about these words in future blogs.

*Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L.  (2002).  Bringing words to life.  New York:  Guilford.

How to encourage multiple perspectives on a reading topic

When students take Advanced Placement (AP) courses, they must read and analyze several documents on a given topic.  Those documents come from various sources, such as diaries, government publications, laws, news reports, emails and speeches.  The documents approach the topic from various perspectives, such as a private citizens, columnists, people with a grudge, historians and mental health experts.

EPSON MFP image

From all these documents students are asked to understand a complicated issue and to make sense of it.

Can we work with young readers, even beginning readers, to encourage a similar wider, multifaceted understanding of a topic?  Can we help children to identify important ideas and then help them to compare and contrast those ideas through various reading sources?  Can we help our earliest readers to become critical thinkers?

Yes.  One way is by choosing several books or other reading sources which approach a topic from different perspectives or genres.  First, decide on a question you would like the student to explore, such as, What was it like to take the Oregon Trail? or Why do polar bears need ice?  To have the greatest impact, the topic should be one the student is studying or a seasonal or timely topic.  Together the sources should give a wider and more profound understanding than any one source alone can give.

Here are some examples for primary grade students.

graceforpres

The question might be, Can a girl be President?  Show the student a copy of The Constitution and explain what it is.  Then have reproduced the appropriate lines from Article II defining the President’s qualifications.  Discuss what they mean.  Then have the student read Grace for President by Kelly S. DiPucchio, about a little girl who decides to run for president at her school.  Discuss how hard it is to become President.  Finally, your child could read a biography of Hillary Clinton, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton:  Some Girls Are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel or Who is Hillary Clinton? by Heather Alexander.  Discuss whether Mrs. Clinton has the qualifications needed, and what other strengths might be needed to be a President.

If the question is What’s an idiom? your student could start with In a Pickle: And Other Funny Idioms by Marvin Terban. This book explains what an idiom is and then illustrates well-known idioms with funny drawings.  Next, your child could read Raining Cats and Dogs: A Collection of Irresistible Idioms and Illustrations to Tickle the Funny Bones of Young People by Will Moses.  This book illustrates common idioms, but goes one step further:  it explains how the idioms came to be.  My Teacher is an Idiom by Jamie Gilson shows what happens in a fictional second grade when a new student from France misunderstands English idioms, and when the English-speaking kids misunderstand French idioms.  The reader learns that all cultures have idioms, but sometimes they do not translate into another language.

If the question is What is the water cycle? you could explore Water is Water:  A Book about the Water Cycle by Miranda Paul.  With poetry and evocative art, readers follow two children as they pass through the water cycle as water goes from rain outside to steam in the tea pot to evaporation into clouds.  In The Drop in my Drink: The Story of Water on Our Planet by Meredith Hooper, readers travel back to a young planet Earth to find out where water came from and to learn about erosion and how all living things depend on water.  National Geographic Readers: Water by Melissa Stewart shows more about the water cycle through beautiful photography and easy reading words.