I wanted a new bulletin board for my classroom this year, something encouraging for my students. My heading reads, "Students Are The Fabric of Our School." Out of two groups of students, maybe three knew what fabric was. One student in the second group guessed the meaning without help. It's easy to assume that students, any students, understand what we're talking about in casual conversation. But you know the saying about the word, "assume." (It makes an a_ _ out of U and Me.) I'm reminded more every year that students don't have the same experiences growing up that I did. My sister and I knew what fabric was. We learned to sew from our mother. We could measure fabric using a yard stick, arrange the patterns with the arrows parallel to the selvedges. Yes, we knew what those were as well. We also knew how to use measuring cups and spoons because we helped cook dinner since our parents both worked.
Fast food and cheaper clothing have changed lifestyles for many people, myself included. I don't long to spend hours in the kitchen whipping up meals, but I could if I needed to. My point here is not to blame our faster-paced lives, only to point our that we need to keep this in mind when we write for children. If you're writing about a child who lived long ago, you may need to explain in some way why they did what they did as well as how. Using a pump in the primitive kitchen may bring to mind a gas pump you squeeze rather than a metal pump you pull up and down to bring water into the house. Wearing an apron to cook may be seen as a fashion statement rather than to keep the only dress a young lady owned presentable.
Even stories set in modern times need to have explanations for activities that are not basic to most homes. Not every child knows what a horse bridle is, but if they are interested in horses, a description of its purpose would be fascinating. I often hear that children want shorter and shorter books, as in picture books. I disagree. By restricting the amount of reading material for those children who are just being introduced to books, we're sending the wrong message. Maybe we just need to make the books more interesting and more informative. I wouldn't spend much time at all with a book in Russian, even with pictures. They would only take me so far.
For low readers, books with difficult or unusual vocabulary can be just as discouraging. What would be wrong with including a short glossary in the back of a book about another time or country? I think that this would encourage more students to look up a word than relying on their motivation to seek out a dictionary. Children, especially middle schoolers are extremely peer conscious. They don't want to appear "stupid" to the other students in the classroom by asking the teacher for help or picking up their dictionary. One nice feature of the Kindle is that you can press any word in a book and get a dictionary entry immediately. This excellent feature clarifies and saves face for sensitive kids. Win-win.
But, what about understanding words because of the context they're in? Every teacher's dream, and sometimes an actual goal on an IEP. I see a major lack of reading comprehension in public school, both with exceptional and with regular students. Why not give them some anonymous help with a glossary or with wider margins and definitions on the same page? Would this make the readers more like text books? Sure, however, guess what? Our students are LEARNERS. So what if the books appear to actually be educational?
Our school was fortunate to receive quite a few books from Scholastic last year. The sets include very popular, current novels for middle school students. One of the most popular has been The Hunger Games. These books are the same ones found in book stores, but here's one difference: these are being used at school in a learning capacity. The students love the books, but if we didn't require them to learn vocabulary words in them, most of them would never bother.
I'm not trying to cater to lazy learners, but I'm not so old that I don't remember being this age. I don't remember carrying around a dictionary with me every time I sat with my nose glued in a book. And, yes, the more you read, the better your vocabulary will be. Face it, though. A lot of kids don't have book collections at home. When they are given the chance to read your or others' fascinating stories, can't we try to give them a leg up? I didn't do this with my first book, but I'm going to consider it with the next.