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  • The Demise of the Caboose . . . and the Need for Word Consciousness
  • Peter V. Paul, Editor

The title of this essay may be confusing, especially because there is a conflation of two different concepts. Let’s start by blaming Cheri Williams for this situation, given her invited essay in this issue of the Annals on vocabulary learning in young children. As you might have surmised, vocabulary is a construct that causes me to become reflective, rational, creative, and unpredictably chaotic. (Full disclosure: My doctoral dissertation was on this topic [Paul, 1984], as well as a few subsequent publications.) As aptly stated by Stahl and Nagy (2006), “Words are so pervasive in our life, so central to being human, that we do not often stop to reflect on their value and power” (p. 3). So many words, so little time. Nevertheless, the goal, in my view, should be the development and enhancement of word consciousness in children and adolescents (see also Blachowicz & Fisher, 2004; Scott & Nagy, 2004; Stahl & Nagy, 2006).

What is word consciousness? Briefly, this is a deep and wide awareness of words and their connections to other words. This awareness leads to the understanding of numerous concepts, mainly because vocabulary knowledge is cumulative. The more words and related aspects you know, the more words you will learn in a variety of situations. In addition, you develop this insatiable need for wordplay.

To illustrate a few multiple aspects of word consciousness, I shall tell you a story. My son and I get our kicks by going for long car rides, and, invariably, we have to drive across railroad tracks, held together by numerous rows of wood ties. Occasionally, the long crossing gates lower themselves slowly, and the red lights start to blink alternately and incessantly at us. Here comes the freight train, led by a huge, black, robust engine, followed by a few bland-looking gondola cars filled with freight, a boxcar with wide sliding doors, and on and on—but, by golly, there is no cute-looking little, red, yellow, blue, or whatever caboose.

As the gates lift themselves up, I look at my son in the rearview mirror, and I inquire: What happened to the caboose? Why do they permit a gondola car to bring up the rear? Where is the crew eating? If you travel by ship, you need a galley for preparing and eating meals. Doesn’t this train need a caboose for that reason and more? Don’t we all like to see a nice-looking caboose that has windows with a view?

Hey, let’s go kick the conductor and the engineer in the caboose! By the way, what is more than one caboose? Cabeese like geese? Or caboose like moose? Perhaps, it should be cabooses like boys, to play it safe.

By now, my son is either sleeping, daydreaming, or simply not motivated to dialogue with me. Unfortunately, so are, I fear, a number of students in my university classes. Oh, my preservice student-teachers have been exposed to and understand a variety of classic fun-and-interesting research-based vocabulary instruction techniques that fall under the categorical umbrella of semantic elaboration, such as word maps, semantic maps, graphic organizers, semantic feature analyses, webs, four-square concept maps, Venn diagrams, and other depictions of the conceptual fields of words and their relations to other words and phrases (e.g., Gunning, 2008; Heimlich & Pittelman, 1986; Johnson & Pearson, 1984; Stahl & Nagy, 2006). They seem to understand the big three and their combinations for developing vocabulary learning in children—also discussed in Dr. Williams’s essay: (a) incidental word learning via rich language exposure from through-the-air dialogues, discussions, storytellings, story sharings, read-alouds, and so on; (b) extensive reading and re-reading of a wide range of texts and other materials; and (c) explicit, targeted vocabulary instruction by teachers (see also the discussions in Cain & Oakhill, 2007; Carlisle & Rice, 2002; Kamhi & Catts, 2012; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).

So what’s the problem? Well, to promote word consciousness (e.g., Blachowicz & Fisher, 2004; Scott & Nagy, 2004; Stahl & Nagy, 2006), one must be curious, passionate, and downright nutty about the uses and applications of [End Page 435] words...


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