Interview with Judy Montgomery, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Professor, Chapman University
Montgomery:My background as a clinician is in public schools. For twenty-four years I was a speech-language pathologist in preschool through secondary settings; a principal of a K school; and a director of special education in a school district. From there I moved to Chapman University where I am now a professor of special education and literacy. I help to prepare special educators and general educators to understand communication disorders and to be able to work with speech-language pathologists at their sites. Building this understanding is very important. I think as speech-language pathologists, we are often misunderstood and our general and special education colleagues don't know what we do. And perhaps that's because no one's ever really explained what we do. So I have had the unique opportunity to do that. I also teach literacy courses. So I teach teachers to teach reading, which really stretched me and moved me in some new directions I hadn't been in before. It helped me understand reading, writing, and the whole literacy process--especially its critical relationship to language development. And that led me to some of the work that I'm doing today. I look at the five essential elements or what they sometimes call "building blocks of reading" from the National Reading Panel Report of 2001. The five essential elements would be phonemic awareness, phonics instruction, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension. When you look at those five areas, several of them jump out and shout there's an overlap here with speech-language pathology and general education. So I focused on the areas of phonemic awareness and phonics, and then most recently vocabulary. I realized that when we talk about vocabulary, we are talking about building not only oral vocabulary, which is the basis for reading, but also the reading vocabulary. And they're so closely aligned, so closely tied with each other, that it's been very exciting research and a very interesting application to the speech-language pathology field.
Schreiber:I've studied what you've written on vocabulary and found it so interesting that you have identified four types of vocabulary--listening, speaking, reading, and writing vocabulary--and that each of them has a different purpose. Can you tell us more about that?
Montgomery:I too found that rather interesting because we think vocabulary is our collection of words, what we call the lexicon. But when you look at it as four distinct types, you find out they are indeed very different. If you look at the listening vocabulary, it's our largest vocabulary because listening is such a receptive task that all kinds of words can come in through other vocabulary. They may not really belong to us, that is, they might not be the words that we use but we understand them when someone's saying them to us. So that's by far the largest type of vocabulary. But then the second largest turns out to be your reading vocabulary, not your speaking vocabulary. Reading vocabulary is just huge! We read so many words that we never say. We know what the words mean but we only use them when we are reading. It functions as a kind of new receptive vocabulary because you're seeing the words in print but you don't necessarily use them when you speak. So I think of words like bellicose, meaning someone was quarrelsome, very angry, and aggressive. We might read the word bellicose and know exactly what it means but we don't use it when we talk. Nor do we say words like feigned: she feigned indifference. That's in a book and I know what it means, but I don't say to people, "Well they feigned happiness at the party." We say they pretended or they made-believe. So that means that our speaking vocabulary, that third one, is smaller. It's something like 6,000-10,000 words that we use over and over and over again. And so these 6,000-10,000 words are well-used throughout our lives and it's a much smaller lexicon, a much smaller body of words. They serve us very well but it's the same ones over and over again. And there's the writing vocabulary. And that writing vocabulary is the smallest of all of them. Not because we don't know words to write, but because the writing task itself is quite arduous. Nicki Nelson and others have told us through her book The Writing Approach how hard it is for students to get their ideas down in print and on paper. That is because you do a lot of searching for the right word when you are writing. Punctuation is quite cumbersome. Spelling of course affects what words we choose to write. You'd like to use a word and then you think well I'm not sure I can spell it. So you don't use it because you think you'll just use this simpler one that you know you can spell. So we make a lot of choices when we write. And then finally writing is a physical task. It requires us to have certain materials (like paper, pencil, computer, keyboard, etc.) and if the tools aren't there, then you can't do the writing. We don't do it in just any place, like we do speaking and listening and reading. So the vocabularies, as I like to call them, are four distinctly different types and they have very different purposes and therefore are of varying sizes.
Schreiber:I understand you've captured a lot of this information in a new product you've written for AGS Publishing/Pearson Assessments called The Bridge of Vocabulary. In this product, you not only explain some of the research about vocabulary development, you also explain to users how to teach vocabulary in a functional way. Tell us more about what we might find in The Bridge of Vocabulary.
Montgomery:It's a very exciting project. It came about after several years of looking at other vocabulary tools that are out there. I think most teachers feel that they can teach vocabulary and I think that most speech-language pathologists and special educators say, "Oh yes, I include vocabulary in my IEP goals for children and I know how to go about teaching it." But then when you actually ask them how they teach vocabulary and what they do, their instructional techniques are rather thin. They say, "Well I present lots of words, we practice the words, and then the kids learn the definitions." And then you ask, "Well do the students remember them?" "I think so, but I'm not sure I was teaching the right words." When you query teachers, they begin to point out that they're not quite sure how to go about doing it. So as I was researching vocabulary and looking at the different types, I thought we could get a very practical kind of instructional tool or book out there. So that is what The Bridge of Vocabulary is about. It addresses all four of the vocabularies and reminds us that the research shows if you teach to one you're supporting the other three. So why not teach two of them, or three of them, or four of them at one time? Then you are much more likely to have students retain the new words. So the intent here is to really teach to all four vocabularies knowing that children like to hear it, see it, read it, and then eventually even write it. The book covers preschool all the way through high school and early adult activities, because we never stop learning vocabulary.
Schreiber:Knowing how extensive vocabularies can be, it is a struggle to know which words give children the most mileage. In this book, you help people decide which words should be taught and you do that by using a tier system. Tell us more about the tiers.
Montgomery:Yes, this has been very interesting to pursue. Isabelle Beck wrote a book about three years ago called Bringing Words to Life, and as a general educator and reading researcher herself, she said she didn't think people knew which words to teach, so let's look at how words are developed in a tier approach. So her system has been picked up by many educators and it has served us well within this publication. Tier One words are the words that we use commonly. They are in our 6,000-10,000 common word speaking vocabulary. They include color words, number words, nouns, and verbs that we come across daily. Those aren't necessary to teach directly. Most of the time we learn them just from our conversations and our discourse with others. Tier Two words, on the other hand, are also used fairly frequently, but they don't belong to any particular group of words and they can be used in all kinds of different disciplines. They're really "work words" for us and they include words like estimate, gather, latitude, display, transfer, and frequently. They're words that are highly useful and fairly common but are not ones that you might know instantly. Tier Three words are words that belong to particular types of study, certain avenues of research, and certain kinds of industries. So you might have banking words, and school words, and fishing words, weaving words, and masonry words, and volcano words, and basically, words that are connected to certain subject areas. So we find that children learn Tier One words rapidly in our discourse with them and Tier Three words when they're taught specifically, when they have to do with core subject units or particular topics that are being studied, or even in their own hobbies. It's those Tier Two words that are a challenge for struggling learners because no one specifically teaches them. So Beck suggests that we target those Tier Two words. We do our best to find the words that are really overlooked, that many teachers would say, "Of course the students must know that word," but they often don't. So when you focus on Tier Two words, you can really boost up a child's vocabulary because you haven't been redundant by teaching Tier One again; and you haven't been so specific that now you have words that children have learned but will have limited uses for unless you happen to be talking about volcanoes. In other words, you don't practice them in your daily learning or speaking environments.
Schreiber:So some of the activities included address Tier Two, correct?
Montgomery:Right, we're focusing as much as we can on Tier Two vocabulary. And then we'll give teachers ideas on how to move into Tier Three words for a period of time because that'll be important to link to core subject area material. This is the vocabulary needed to succeed on high stakes testing. Activities for preschool and early elementary students highlight Tier One words because those are the ones children are going to need to learn in order to become readers, and then move onto the other higher tiers.
Schreiber:How do you balance teaching vocabulary, giving children access to the curriculum, aligning our teaching to standards, and then also helping us know that what we do is evidence-based?
Montgomery:Well this is today's challenge for SLPs in schools! One can't be working in school-based settings without talking about standards on one hand, which is our connection with general education, and evidence-based practices on the other hand, which is our connection with our discipline. So we attempted to combine them in this book and I think that clinicians will find that standards and evidence-based practice are both quite accessible to them. Each activity is complete on one page only. And at the beginning of the activity, we explain the objectives followed by the evidence-based statement for how to provide intervention for it. In other words, where in the research would this intervention have been described and why would we use it here? So that's called an evidence-based statement. Then there's the activity and exactly how to teach it, including a short script, so that teachers or SLPs know exactly what to say. And then at the bottom of that page is the standard. The standards come from all fifty states including the District of Columbia. Our standards are relatively similar from state to state and so we'll take a standard from Arkansas or a standard from Illinois or one from California or one from Rhode Island and we'll list it at the bottom of the page so that professionals can feel comfortable saying, "Oh, here's the standard just like the one in my state." That means teachers can identify with the standard (which is at the bottom of the page), clinicians can identify with the evidence-based statement (which is at the top of the page), and both conclude, "Hey, we're going to use the same activity to get there." So we hope that this combines general and special education. When you go into a classroom you can use one book that applies to the teacher's standard and also the clinician's evidence-based statement. The teacher can either have her own copy of the book, which we think is a good idea, or borrow the book from the SLP, and know that she or he is still reinforcing what successful general education and special education students need to learn today.
Schreiber:It sounds like a really needed product that will be very useful for people who are trying to sort out how to teach vocabulary and which words to teach, and then how to teach in a way that is evidence-based and aligned with the classroom curriculum. I'm looking forward to seeing the book published. Thank you so much for sharing this information with us today Judy and thank you for all you do for our profession.
Montgomery:It's been an exciting journey, there's always a lot to do out there! SLPs have a critical role to play in supporting language and literacy. Vocabulary interventions may be one of the best ways to help our educational partners understand what SLPs do in schools.
Schreiber:For more information about The Bridge of Vocabulary, go to www.speechandlanguage.com.