Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools

By Robert J. Marzano | Go to book overview

4 Building Academic Background Knowledge
Through Direct Vocabulary Instruction

In Chapter 2, I discussed the relationship between vocabulary development and background knowledge in some depth. As we have seen, the relationship is strong. Knowledge of specific terms is, for all intents and purposes, synonymous with background knowledge. Given this relationship, I argued that the traditional notion of vocabulary instruction should be expanded to include specific terms such as Carl Lewis and Washington, D.C., as opposed to restricting instruction to only general terms such as athlete and city. This expanded vision of vocabulary instruction has the potential over time to dramatically increase students’ academic background knowledge (Marzano, 2004). Indeed, this was one of the primary conclusions from Becker’s (1977) analysis of programs designed to fight the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s. Becker noted that to close the gap between students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those who do not, schools should use systematic programs of vocabulary instruction throughout the grades. Carroll (1971) made the same recommendation as a result of his review of the research on effective practices for the educationally disadvantaged. Finally, recent federal documents have identified vocabulary instruction as one of the essential elements of literacy development for students at risk (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002; NICHD Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000).

With these types of endorsements, we might expect that schoolwide and even districtwide programs of direct vocabulary instruction would be a staple in U.S. education. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Research indicates that uniform and systematic vocabulary instruction is scarce in U.S. schools (McKeown & Curtis, 1987). Indeed, Durkin (1979) noted that in her observation of 4,469 minutes per year of reading instruction using basal readers, only 19 minutes were devoted to

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