Understanding vocabulary standards: Building students’ skills

Differentiation between the vocabulary standards in the Reading and Language Strands

In Mississippi, the state-wide assessment is completely teacher-written. As teachers from around the state were developing items, it was evident that there was confusion about alignment of vocabulary items. Specifically, teachers struggled to differentiate between the vocabulary standards in the Mississippi College- and Career-Readiness Standards (MS-CCRS). English Language Arts (ELA) Standard 4 in the Reading Literature (RL) and Reading Information (RI) strands, as well as Standards 4-6 in the Language strand of the MS-CCRS all focus on vocabulary usage and development.

Considering it was difficult for item writers to differentiate between these standards when writing items for the state assessment, we figured teachers might be confused about how to teach these vocabulary standards as well. Therefore, it was imperative we provide clarification between the standards to teachers.

To that end, we produced a guidance document for teachers to assist them in clarifying how to teach and assess the vocabulary standards. Included is a description of each standard with an explanation and a sample item assessing the standards. Following the assessment item is a rational for alignment.

The document outlines guidance for assessing these standards. For example, Standard 4 in RL and RI asks students to be able to determine the meaning of the word or phrase as used in a text. Questions and items aligned to these standards ask students, “What does this word mean in this passage?” Students must be able to use the content of the text to determine the meaning of the tested word. Important to note: Prior knowledge should not be relied upon for this or any vocabulary standard in an assessment item.

Vocabulary standards in the Language strand of the MS-CCRS are not strictly asking for the meaning of a word; these standards are focused on the strategies used to determine word meaning. Context can be one of those strategies, but the bullets under L.4 and L.5 also include other strategies, such as “common, grade-appropriate Greek or Latin affixes,” or “relationships between particular words.” Questions and assessment items aligned to these standards will ask students about the strategy used to determine meaning.

What should be clear is the overlap between these two sets of standards. This is due to the importance vocabulary plays in literacy instruction and overall student understanding of a text. Some questions or tasks that assess vocabulary skills may, in fact, align to both the Reading and Language standards. There are blurred lines, which there should be, because students must be able to do both.

As such, when teachers begin to teach these standards, there should be no difference in how vocabulary is taught. The main factor is that students should know different strategies to determine word meaning, not just one type of context clue and the dictionary. For example, is the student able to use Greek or Latin affixes to determine the meaning of the word? Are students able to use multiple types of context clues (synonym/antonym, punctuation, inference) to determine meaning? Can the students determine the meaning of figurative language? Can students relate words to antonyms or synonyms? Can students determine multiple meanings of the same word?

The Guidance document we produced will be shared with teachers in Mississippi. While it references the Mississippi CCR standards, it is our hope that it can provide clarity for teachers throughout the country, especially when emphasizing the importance of vocabulary in helping students become better readers!

 

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About the Author: Vincent Segalini is the State Assessment Director for the State of Mississippi. He has worked as the ELA coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Education and taught for 14 years in ELA, History, and Special Education.

About the Author: Melissa Beck is the MKAS2 Coordinator and ELA Content Specialist for the State of Mississippi. She has worked with teachers in numerous districts across the state as an elementary teacher, middle school teacher, English chairperson, literacy coach, and professional development provider.