Considering many children have been putting together puzzles since they were toddlers, it may be, well, puzzling, why only 51 percent of fourth-graders nationwide got the word "puzzled" right on a national vocabulary test.
"Here's my hunch," said Margaret McKeown, an education professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a senior scientist at its Learning Research and Development Center.
Children "think of a puzzle as an object they put together," she said. "They don't realize it comes from the verb, that it's something that confuses you. They don't see that relationship. ... It's like a new word."
The vocabulary test was part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test in grades 4 and 8 in all states in 2009 and 2011. Vocabulary results also are available for grade 12 in 2009 in 11 states, but not Pennsylvania.
The results, released this month, marked the first time NAEP has isolated vocabulary performance. Ms. McKeown chaired the subcommittee on the design of the NAEP vocabulary assessment.
At all three grade levels, students who did better in vocabulary also did better in reading comprehension.
In vocabulary and reading comprehension for grades 4 and 8, Pennsylvania students scored higher than the national average.
Most states didn't show a gender gap in vocabulary, but Pennsylvania did in grade 4, with girls outperforming boys.
The national results showed striking differences based on income levels and other demographics.
Of fourth-graders scoring in the bottom quarter, 73 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.
But of those scoring in the top quarter of fourth-graders, only 24 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.
The pattern was similar in eighth grade.
At 12th grade, 31 percent of those in the bottom quarter said at least one parent had graduated from college.
But among the top quarter of 12th-graders, 70 percent said at least one parent had graduated from college.
"It's just confirming what we know," Ms. McKeown said. "It starts very young. It starts off because they don't hear enough language. They don't get enough exposure. Everything builds on your early exposure to language. You learn more words because you know words. You're always building on top of words you know."
That means children with more language exposure are ready sooner to learn more words, including academic words that appear more commonly in print than in speech, such as "innovative," "reluctant," "despite," "analyze," "dominant" and "integrate."
On the NAEP vocabulary test, words for which more than 75 percent of students nationally got the meaning right included:
• Grade 4: spread, underestimate;
• Grade 8: anecdotes, edible, enticing, grimace, icons, motivate, replicate and specialty;
• Grade 12: anecdotes, capitalize, prospective, prospered and reimburse.
Words that were correctly recognized by 49 percent or fewer included:
• Grade 4: barren, detected, eerie, flourish and prestigious;
• Grade 8: urbane;
• Grade 12: delusion and urbane.
Rather than asking for a definition, the vocabulary test used the word in a reading passage and then asked questions related to the word in its context.
In the case of "puzzled," the word came in a passage on the Boston statue based on the well-known children's book, "Make Way for Ducklings."
The students were given this question:
"On Page 1, the passage says that some boys were puzzled when they visited the Public Garden. This means the boys were
a. trying to follow the ducks
b. hoping to play games with the ducks
c. surprised that there were so many ducks
d. confused that there were no ducks
While 51 percent of fourth-graders selected the correct answer -- confused -- nearly a third chose a close answer, surprised.
Ms. McKeown said surprised was in the ballpark, but, "The real foundation of it is you're confused."
Far fewer students selected the first choice listed, which is a misunderstanding of the context, or the second choice, which has correct information from the passage but the wrong meaning for "puzzled."
Ms. McKeown said children's understanding of vocabulary could be increased with more explicit instruction.
"It's still a thing in school where if the classroom is quiet, everything is going well. There needs to be a lot more language used," she said.
She thinks words are best taught in the context of text or a book, including both explanation and activities -- such as asking, "Which is more innovative, a flying car or a new pair of shoes?"--so students can see how to use words in their lives.
The NAEP vocabulary report is available at http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2011/
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.