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The dictionary was out of sight as Tara Malm quizzed her fifth grade class about vocabulary. The kids had already learned one meaning of “critical” — careful and thoughtful deliberation, as in “critical thinking.” But Malm asked them where else they’d heard the word and what else it might mean.

“Oh!” exclaimed 12-year-old Latrell Judge. “Sometimes after a movie comes out there are critics.”

Slowly the kids cobbled together that a critic is someone who judges things, so being critical could mean judging things. Malm took it a step further and explained that more specifically, it means when someone believes that people or things are bad.

“Like Simon Cowell on American Idol,” Latrell added.

“That’s a good example,” Malm said.

Another student raised her hand. “What about a critical injury?” she asked.

“Yes!” Malm said. “What’s a critical injury?”

“A serious injury.”

And the class figured out that “critical” could also mean “very important.”

As they grapple with new words, Latrell and his classmates at Marshall Elementary are part of an unusual experiment in San Diego Unified. The City Heights school is one of two dozen elementary and middle schools testing a new and potentially powerful way to teach vocabulary that aims to conquer part of the achievement gap between children from poor homes and wealthy ones.

Instead of handing children a list of words to look up and regurgitate on a quiz, Marshall and other schools are trying to teach children how to figure out words when they stumble upon them. The program, designed by a team of Harvard University scholars, aims to help children learn words the same way they would in the real world — by hearing them in different places and deducing their meaning.

The pilot program is supposed to level the playing field for poor children and English learners, who usually hear far fewer English words at home. Educators are increasingly realizing that vocabulary is a big deal. But not all children get the same chances to pick up words: One famous study found that professionals’ children go to preschool armed with more than twice as many words as children on welfare.

That smaller vocabulary can handicap children at school. Children who struggle to understand vocabulary get frustrated with reading when they constantly have to look up words. So they stop reading, which stunts their vocabulary. And the vicious cycle keeps going.

San Diego is trying to stop that cycle by teaching children how to teach themselves vocabulary. “You’ll never be able to teach them the 50,000 words they need to use,” said Linda Gohlke, who oversees curriculum design in the district. “So they’ve got to learn strategies to learn those words.”

The program also aims to delve deeper into academic words that rarely pop up in daily chatter but are common in textbooks, articles and standardized tests, by having children confront and use them in different ways. They’re words like “expose,” “resource,” “conduct” or “complex” — words with multiple meanings, often abstract ones, which kids rarely hear spoken out loud.

Harvard researchers Nonie Lesaux and her colleagues found that the San Diego pilot program boosted scores on school district reading tests, helping children achieve growth that would normally take them another five to 16 months. The program began two years ago in some sixth-grade classrooms and expanded this year to fifth grade at roughly a dozen schools.

Gohlke pegs the price at roughly $100,000 for the two dozen schools, most of which pays for student notebooks. That money came from federal stimulus funding that runs out next summer, which means that financial woes could stall or end the program if schools don’t find another way to pay for it.

Doing vocabulary differently also takes time. The Harvard program takes 20 weeks and devotes 45 minutes daily to vocabulary, spending nine days on a dozen words or fewer. That’s a lot more time than is usually spent by teachers, who sometimes only stop to explain words when they turn up in stories or textbooks.

“It takes 15, 20, 30 exposures to a word to really figure out what it means,” said Catherine Snow, a Harvard education professor. “There’s no way that a single exposure” — like looking it up in the dictionary — “gives you enough information to mentally map out a word’s meaning.”

Kids start off by reading articles with juicy topics like cyberbullying and whether schools should separate boys and girls in class. Those articles just happen to include academic words like “incident,” “communicate,” or “crucial.” Students then read the vocabulary words out loud.

In an ordinary class, Malm and her students would probably turn to the dictionary then. But the Harvard program waits. The class gabs about the article: How should kids handle cyberbullying? Do people buy things just because they see ads on television? The next day, Latrell and his classmates return to the same article and try to figure out the words from how they fit into the text.

They brainstorm ideas before they finally look the words up in the dictionary. But that’s only the beginning. Kids then come up with personal definitions for the words that make sense to them, in language they can understand. They go back and reread the article again.

“The point isn’t that your students can amaze you reciting definitions,” said Phoebe Sloane, a consultant who helps supervise the program. “They’re not petrified to look at a new piece of writing.”

Day by day, they keep working with the words in new ways. Malm gives kids points when they spot the words on the news or television. They sketch out the words’ meanings and learn to break them up into prefixes, suffixes and roots. Even parents get in on the act: Schools send fliers home listing the words they should try to use and point out the next few weeks.

“They explain it a lot more than they used to,” said 12-year-old Jose Reyes. His class spends more time on vocabulary now. “But it seems short. It’s fun. You play around with words and find the meaning.”

All that wordplay might seem like overkill, but the results here are promising. The rub is that those gains alone still weren’t enough to make up the vocabulary gap between poor and wealthy kids.

Despite the growing research on how much vocabulary matters, studies say systematic programs like the Harvard experiment still aren’t common. San Diego Unified is the only school district in the country using this specific one. If the kids who Malm teaches had their way, it wouldn’t be so rare.

“I’m excited,” Latrell said. “Now I want to read more.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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