AUGUSTA — Maine students scored higher than the national average on the first national report card for vocabulary released Thursday, but experts say the best strategies for teaching vocabulary have not reached most classrooms.

In addition, there were large achievement gaps across income levels and racial and ethnic groups in the results from the first-ever vocabulary report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of national standardized tests often called “the nation’s report card.”

With a scaled score topping out at 500, Maine eighth-graders averaged 270, compared to a national average of 263.

Maine fourth-grade students in 2011 averaged a score of 219, barely above the national average of 217. The report said the difference was not statistically significant.

Maine was not among the 11 states where 12th-graders took the test. Their national average score was 294.

Maine ranked fifth out of the six New England states for both fourth and eighth grades. At both grade levels, Rhode Island had the lowest average score and Massachusetts the highest.

The scores are based on students’ answers to questions on the reading portion of the test. Vocabulary has long been a part of the test, but this is the first time results have been reported separately.

Vocabulary is receiving new emphasis as part of literacy because of recent research showing its vital role in reading comprehension and its need for dedicated attention even before kindergarten.

“To some degree, we almost took it for granted that kids would just pick up these words on their own or incidentally,” said Lee Anne Larsen, literacy specialist for the Maine Department of Education. “And that is one of the things that the research has been pretty clear about. Yes, we do learn a lot of words incidentally; but we do not learn all of our words that way, and we will learn a lot more if we engage in some direct instruction around vocabulary.”

Maine’s Learning Results — the statewide standards for schools — mention vocabulary only briefly. However, Larsen said, the new Common Core national standards include an entire section on vocabulary development and also incorporate it into other aspects of literacy: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Francie Alexander, chief academic officer for Scholastic Education, said on a news media call Thursday that students need to learn 65,000 to 75,000 words during their education but will encounter only about 10,000 words in everyday speech.

The questions on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were designed to test students on so-called “Tier II” or “academic” words. They are more common in written rather than spoken language, apply across subject areas and often have multiple meanings.

Students answered multiple-choice questions to show whether they could determine the meaning of a word within the context of a passage and understand the word’s contribution to the meaning of the overall passage.

In fourth grade, most students understood the meaning of the word “estimate” in context, but even students scoring in the 90th percentile were likely to answer questions about “prestigious” and “barren” wrong.

In eighth grade, “motivate” and “specialty” were the most commonly understood words, while “urbane” challenged even the top scorers in both eighth grade and 12th grade.

Unlike the reading and mathematics results, the vocabulary results were not reported in terms of achievement levels such as “basic,” “proficient” and “advanced.”

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in the media call that people wanting to gauge students’ performance could look at a few different measures. They include the trend in vocabulary scores over time, the achievement gaps between different groups, or the words that students scoring at different percentiles were likely to understand.

In Maine, the average vocabulary score for eighth grade edged upward slightly from 266 in 2009 to 270 in 2011. Among fourth-graders, the average score dipped by an insignificant score, from 220 to 219, in the same years.

That reflects Maine’s results on the overall reading test, on which eighth-grade scores improved slightly and fourth-grade scores fell slightly between 2009 and 2011.

Achievement gaps

Just as in national results, black students in Maine performed significantly worse than white students. In 2011, the only year for which separate figures are available, the achievement gap was 31 points for fourth grade and 28 points for eighth grade.

There is also an achievement gap between students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and those who are not. Average scores for the low-income students in Maine were 22 points lower for fourth grade and 20 points lower for eighth grade in 2011.

Larsen said that’s consistent with a pioneering study, published in 1995, showing children from privileged families hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from underprivileged families.

The effects of that vocabulary gap persist for years, making it crucial to work on developing vocabulary early in school, Larsen said.

“You’ve got to try to build that vocabulary in a hurry and pay more attention to it,” she said. “Until that research became more well known, you sort of assumed that everyone was starting in the same place.”

Building vocabulary

Maine’s new literacy initiative, Literacy for ME, attempts to address Mainers from birth to adulthood. Larsen wants early childhood educators, parents and other caregivers to understand the importance of reading and talking to infants, toddlers and young children.

“The more that they’re talking and having rich conversations with their children, that in and of itself will go a long way to building kids’ vocab and reading comprehension down the line,” she said.

The way vocabulary is taught in school also needs to change. Larsen said research done in the last decade shows it’s not effective to ask students to look up and memorize dictionary definitions for a list of words.

Instead, educators should present words in context, get students to connect them to something that has meaning in their own lives and repeat words at least a handful of times to aid memory retention.

While schools often leave teaching the building blocks of words — including roots, prefixes and suffixes — until middle school or high school, Larsen said, research shows that actually can start in third grade. It helps children determine the meaning of a word in context.

Many of these practices have not filtered down to the classroom level, according to Larsen and national experts who released statements about the vocabulary report.

Larsen said her office is trying to fix that by organizing workshops and webinars. They’ve also posted online a four-session vocabulary micro-course that includes two sessions on instructional practices.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com