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Manisha Shelley Kaura: Vocabulary Tunes

Apr 11, 2017 by

An Interview with Manisha Shelley Kaura: Vocabulary Tunes

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. First of all, can you tell us about yourself?

I am Manisha Shelley Kaura, and I have a BA degree from Xavier University in Cincinnati. My dad, Dr. S. R. Kaura, and I have been researching the topic of early literacy since I was in fourth grade. We were curious to find out the cause of failure of early literacy in America. After ten years of research, we found out that lack of root word knowledge in K-8 school students is the “missing link.” Our school children can read quite well because of use of phonics by “sounding out” the academic words in the textbooks, but the comprehension is missing. To improve vocabulary comprehension, we authored two vocabulary text books for gifted students called Rockin’ Root Words (Prufrock Press, 2010). To make this program more fun and easy to learn, we created a more focused and music-based Vocab Tunes Root Words, a three-level K-8 program. To improve awareness, we have a singing and dancing competition based on Vocab Tunes Root Words among American children, K-8, with more info on our website

  1. Why is early literacy in American education failing?

A recent U S Education Department report showed a continuous erosion in vocabulary skills across the nation. Now our children are ranked twelfth among the western nations in vocabulary skills. This report shows a continuous and steady decline for the last fifty years in spite of so much money being poured into it. It appears our focus has shifted from “reading to learn” to “learn to read” by phonics. Phonics are okay to use to learn simple Anglo-Saxon origin words like take, bake, and lake. But a large majority of academic words in K-8 textbooks are Greek or Latin in origin. These words are made by combining the meaningful prefixes, roots, and suffixes.

So, these words have very consistent meanings. This system of learning uses meaningful morphology in curricula that needs explicit classroom instruction.

3).    Why is vocabulary instruction important?

Vocabulary knowledge not only contributes to reading comprehension but also is linked to academic success (National Reading Panel, 2000). However, vocabulary growth is inadequately addressed in current educational curricula, especially between preschool and the end of second grade, when it is most important (Biemiller, 2000). By the time a child reaches the end of second grade, he or she has learnt 4,000 to 8,000 words, adding 1000 words per year in the years following (Biemiller, 2000). The numbers are staggering when one considers a gap of 2,000 words equals approximately two grade levels. An educator’s chances of successfully addressing vocabulary differences in school are greatest in preschool and early elementary years (Biemiller & Boote, 2006).

According to Marcia K. Henry “12 Latin and 2 Greek roots, along with 20 of the most frequently used prefixes would generate an estimated 100,000 words” totally amazing, considering the average high school graduate’s vocabulary is roughly 40,000 words.(James I. Brown 1971,Henry (1993),Corson (1995),Yamazaki and Yamazaki. The good news is that we can remedy these deficits by introducing innovative programs like Vocab Tunes Root Words.

4) What are the five legs of vocabulary?

The first one is phonology: the sound-spelling combination as taught in phonic programs. The second is morphology: awareness of the root words or patterns. The third is syntax, which is proper order of words in sentences according to grammar. Fourth is semantics, which is the interpretation of the meanings of the words in a sentence. The last one is pragmatics, which means how many ways a sentence can be interpreted. Out of the five legs, morphology is the most underemphasized part of curriculum, so it is the basis of our program Vocab Tunes Root Words.

As mentioned in morphology, the root words have two main sources. Simple root words of Anglo-Saxon origin are like –ake is used in making words like bake, cake, lake, and make.

Another example is –ook, which is used in making words like book, cook, look, and nook. These root word patterns or meaningless word parts do nothing to provide any meaning to the word.

The second main source of root words is from Greek or Latin word parts. This is the major source of academic English used in school curricula. These root words are everywhere in the English language. These word parts contribute to more than sixty percent of English words, seventy to ninety percent of science terminology, seventy-one percent of social studies words, and practically one hundred percent of math terms (Farsupt & Samuels, 2008; Greene, 1990).

Learning Greek and Latin roots provides students advantages, such as comfort with long words, advanced awareness, and spelling improvement in science and technical language (Thompson, 2002). Through studying root words, children can understand the internal structure of words and discover connections with root word families.

5) What is the scientific basis or psycholinguistic research supporting this methodology?

Psycholinguistic research has shown there are different ways we can input vocabulary into the human brain (Yamazaki, 2007). If we suppose words are learned by memorizing them one at a time, these words would be stored separately in the human brain as disconnected items. Another way we can input and store words in the human brain is by linking these words through meanings of the root words.

For example, dent– is a root word for tooth, so dentist is a tooth doctor, dentine is the covering of the tooth, and dentures are artificial teeth. So these connected words are all stored under the common root for tooth/teeth, which is dent. You could learn another word, like indentured, which would mean a contract with teeth in it, implying harsh penalties for breach of the contract. This word will get stored as another connected word to the root –dent-. Then mental organization occurs as we learn more connected words. This connection is what leads to ultimate comprehension and easy recall.

6) Why is the program music based?

This is the main attraction and beauty of this program. In general, students are more interested in learning in the classroom when teachers use music and song or dance rather than spoken language (Curtis, 2007). This is why the very melodious songs of Vocab Tunes get children excited about singing and dancing with root word lyrics. Moreover, singing and dancing is a whole mind/body experience. It provides a double reinforcement as a multisensory approach to learning. In many schools, art integration is used to teach curriculum to enhance the learning process in teaching science in “cool schools.” Similar success has been seen in teaching children about our presidents, states, etc.

7) Are there any tests in this methodology?

Studies in learning ability show that “rich get richer and poor get poorer” in terms of present curricula for vocabulary. The children who read well are skilled in figuring out meanings of new academic words through meanings of roots and prefixes and suffixes. So these children improve their vocabulary quickly as they go. However, poor, slow, or disabled readers who are not familiar with root words use the “poor” phonic techniques of figuring out academic words. They can figure out spellings but not meanings of new words. They can learn one word at a time by memorizing. These memories are not based on “grasp,” so they are rather fleeting.

A study of dyslexic students (Casalis, 2004) showed the children have difficulty with phonics and perform better with root-word-based learning. Dyslexic children show improvement in spelling and comprehension with root word knowledge (Elbrus & Arnbark, 1996, 2000).

Research has shown that ESL (English as a second language) or EFL (English as a foreign language) students also show great vocabulary improvement when root word programs are used.

Our own research, done by two English teachers from Taylor mi, showed a 200 to 300 percent improvement by using the Vocab Tunes program.

8) What does the program consist of?

The Vocab Tunes program is set up at three levels: K-2, 3-5, and 6-8, with books and corresponding CDs. All of the books are formatted in a consistent fashion. Each chapter starts with an introduction that gives a definition for a root word or words. It shows a couple of examples of how to use that root and a list of words containing that root. This list is followed by lyrics containing the words from the list. Then there is a list of 5 to 15 vocabulary words with roots, prefixes, and suffixes, followed by multiple quizzes to cement that knowledge in a child’s mind. There are five chapters in the K-2 book, 10 chapters in the Grades 3-5 book, and 21 chapters in the Grades 6-8 book.

Workbook for students in grades 3 to 5 Workbook for students in grades 6 to 8 vocabulary and reading workbook for K (preschool) to 2nd grade children.

9) How do teachers use the program?

How it is used will depend on both the teacher and the student. A teacher may decide to pace the program according to the children. If they are advanced learners, the teacher may designate learning one song every day and asking students to practice the test at home and then test the next day. This schedule may be too fast for a regular classroom, where it is better to do a chapter each week and make it a semester long course or do a chapter every two weeks and make it a school-year long course. Since the songs are on CDs, parents can play them while kids are in the car. Also, Vocab Tunes Root Words is available as ebooks and can be downloaded on iPhones or iPads.

In an Amazon review, Anthony Luczac, who is using the program, indicate the ten main advantages of Vocab Tunes Root Words are ”easy to follow and understand, very little teacher prep needed, you can pace quickly or slowly based on child’s needs, there is an answer key in the back for quick grading. Music is better than I expected for a children’s learning CD. They all don’t sound the same either.” Luczac wrote that cons to the program include “you need to read along with the songs especially in the first few chapters.” He added, “Overall, I think this program is more promising than other vocab books and flash cards.”

For more information, you can contact us at or our website

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