An Interview with Misha Kaura: Vocab Tunes

Apr 11, 2017 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

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

My name is Misha Kaura, and I’m the former CEO of Vocab Tunes as well as the author of six linguistics textbooks for children in kindergarten to eighth grade. My love for science and Latin led me to pursue my current field of study in graduate school. Alongside my Dad, Dr. S. R. Kaura, MD., I have researched the topic of early childhood literacy since I was in the fourth grade. Our driving mission and goal has always been to discover the and to address the disparities of early literacy throughout the United States and the world at large. After ten years of research, we found out that lack of root word knowledge in K-8 school students is the “missing link.” Schoolchildren may be able to read well due to phonics instruction that involves “sounding out” the words in textbooks, but reading comprehension of said words is missing. To improve vocabulary and reading comprehension, my Dad and I authored two vocabulary textbooks in the Rockin’ Root Words series, published by Prufrock Press before I graduated high school. To make the program fun, accessible to all students, and marketable to schools, I edited the program to a music-based Vocab Tunes as a junior in undergrad, and then shortly after graduation, converted it into a tripartite, K-8 program called Vocab Tunes Root Words. My Dad helped me start a singing and dancing competition scheme based on the Vocab Tunes Root Words for K-8 students nationwide. For more information about this program, please visit vocabtunes.com.

2. Why is early literacy in American education failing?

I speculate the overemphasis on standardized testing of K-8 students has led teachers in parochial, private, and public schools to focus more on results than actual learning. The focus in schools has shifted from “reading to learn” to “learn to read” via phonics instruction. While phonics are acceptable learning mechnaisms for simplistic Anglo-Saxon origin words such as take, bake, and lake, a large majority of K-8 textbooks are comprised of more complex Greek and Latin origin words. Such words are made by combining the meaningful prefixes, roots, and suffixes to mix and match to create a variety of words with consistent meanings.

With the advent of the internet and portable electronic devices, children spend more time glued to devices as opposed to reading textbooks and spending time engaging in multisensory learning activities. From birth, many children are placed in front of a television instead of given the freedom to build their vocabularies organically through the written word. With more mothers choosing work outside of the home, and thus spending less time with their children, there simply isn’t an accessible resource other than Vocab Tunes to help children learn vocabulary, stay off of the Internet and away from the television, while also giving stressed out parents a needed break. Students attempt to compensate for these knowledge deficits around SAT and ACT test time, but it is sometimes too late for many students, and their scores would be higher if they had better vocabularies starting from a younger age.

The main advantage of the Vocab Tunes system is that we take words with consistent meanings, and teach children to learn meaningful morphology patterns that are likely not covered thoroughly in the classroom or by parents.

3).    Why is vocabulary instruction important?

Vocabulary knowledge is linked to both reading comprehension and academic success (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Unfortunately, vocabulary growth continues to be addressed inadequately in current educational curricula, especially between preschool and the end of second grade, when it is most critical (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).

Reading a paper by Marcia K. Henry where she states that “twelve Latin and two Greek roots, along with twenty of the most frequently used prefixes would generate an estimated 100,000 words,” helped inspire Vocab Tunes. The finding is fascinating, considering that a rought estimate of vocabulary of an average high school graduate is only 40,000 words (Brown 1971, Henry 1993, Corson 1995, Yamazaki et al.). The good news is that Vocab Tunes Root Words helps to address the learning deficit gap.

4) What are the five legs of vocabulary?

The first is phonology, or the sound-spelling combination as taught in phonic programs. The second is morphology, which is an awareness of the root words or patterns. The third is syntax, which is proper order of words in sentences according to grammar. The fourth is semantics, which is the interpretation of the meanings of the words in a sentence. And, finally, the fifth is pragmatics, which means how many ways a sentence can be interpreted. Out of the five legs, morphology is the most underemphasized part of the English language curriculum in the U.S., which is why it is now the basis of the Vocab Tunes Root Words program.

Morphology features root words with two main sources: Anglo-Saxon and Classical. Simple words of Anglo-Saxon origin can be made from –ake a la bake, cake, lake, and make. Classical origin words generally stem from Greek and Latin, though they can occasionally stem from Sanskrit, and they comprise the majority of academic English as well as the bulk of words tested on standardized entrance exams. Contributing more than “60% of all English words, 70 to 90% of science terminology, and 71% of social studies words, and almost 100% of math terms” (Farsupt & Samuels, 2008; Greene, 1990), it is vital to master this terminology. Sadly, it can be hard to just go down a list and memorize words. This is why the Vocab Tunes Root Words system introduces Classical words in an innovative manner that transforms the learning experience.

Learning Greek and Latin roots provides students a range of 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. Students who use Vocab Tunes Root Words master 300% more words than students without formal training, and earn an average of 400 points higher on standardized entrance exams SSAT, ACT, and SAT.

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

Psycholinguistic research has shown that there are different ways of inputing vocabulary into the human brain (Yamazaki, 2007). On the one hand, some students choose to memorize them one at a time, which leads to separate storage in the brain as disconnected items. On the other hand, smarter students choose to input, store, and remember words is by linking said words through understanding the origins and meanings of 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. These connected words are all stored under the common root for tooth/teeth, which is dent. One could learn another word, like indentured, which would mean a contract with teeth in it, or 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 which is super important for standardized exams such as the GRE and SAT which often feature abstruse words to test student vocabulary. I believe I earned a near-perfect SAT score of 2390 solely due to my vocabulary training from my Dad. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to grow up learning root words, because so many of my friends had to “cram” vocabulary in junior year of high school, and their test scores reflected that.

6) Why is the program music based?

The music based nature of the Vocab Tunes Root Words program is the key to its success. According to research by Curtis et al. in 2007, students are more interested in classroom learning when teachers use music and song or dance rather than spoken language (Curtis, 2007). The melodious, catchy, pop music-inspired songs in the Vocab Tunes collection gets children excited about singing and dancing while also mastering root words.

My goal has always been to curate material that enhances the learning process, and gets students genuinely excited about singing and dancing to root word lyrics. Making learning fun is the best way to help students truly fall in love with the learning process. It doesn’t hurt that singing educational material and dancing is a super fun, whole mind/body experience. Providing this kind of double reinformcement paves the way for 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 successes have been seen in teaching children about presidents, states, etc. with the “Schoolhouse Rock” method of learning.

7) Are there any tests in this methodology?

Studies in learning ability show that “rich get richer and poor get poorer” in terms of the current vocabulary curriculum. The children who read well are skilled in ascertaining the meanings of new academic words through meanings of roots and prefixes and suffixes. So, these children improve their vocabulary quickly as they go through the school system. However, poor, slow, or disabled readers who are not familiar with root words use the “poor” phonic techniques of figuring out academic words. Though they can figure out spellings of words, they generally cannot determine the meanings of new words, which hurts them on standardized exams and in life in general. Such students learn only one word at a time by memorizing, which is an inherently ephemeral method of learning and an unsustainable method of mastery.

A study of dyslexic students showed the children have difficulty with phonics and perform better with root-word-based learning (Casalis, 2004). Dyslexic children show improvement in spelling and comprehension with root word knowledge (Elbrus & Arnbark, 1996, 2000). I know that Vocab Tunes Root Words will continue to help children in this demographic. Lord knows how hard their dyslexia is on their families, and this is an easier way to help parents teach their children how to take responsibility for their vocabulary learning.

Our research done in Michigan with English schoolteachers demonstrates that ESL and EFL students benefit tremendously from root word programs, and that elementary school students show a 200 to 300% improvement in vocabulary acquisition by using Vocab Tunes.

8) What does the program consist of?

The Vocab Tunes program is set up at three levels: K-2, 3-5, and 6-8, each 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. Next, there is a list of five to fifteen vocabulary words with roots, prefixes, and suffixes.  Finally, each book features  multiple quizzes to cement the material. There are five chapters in the K-2 book, ten chapters in the grades 3-5 book, and twenty chapters in the Grades 6-8 book. All three have been met with rave reviews and continue to be bestsellers. I’m proud that my work in undergrad continues to do so well not just in the US but also abroad.

I spent a few months in South Korea last semester, and I saw firsthand how many young students at the primary school levels were desperate to master English vocabulary faster. So, I donated a few thousand copies of the books to a few schools in Seoul. It is my hope that our material benefits families internationally. Every child deserves to master the English language to succeed in an increasingly globalized world, and Vocab Tunes Root Words lives by this mission each and every day. I’m proud of my Christian heritage, and the fact that my family and I have built a deeply Christian values-driven company. While our books are suitable for secular and Christian schools alike, Vocab Tunes has sold well amongst the Christian homeschool community. I think that’s because a lot of Moms who homeschool recognize that we have a Christian heart, and a Christian-inspired social mission to help families and children across the nation and the world.

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 needs of his or her classroom, school curriculum, or state education standards. If students are advanced learners, the teacher may designate learning one song every day and assign the students to review it at home, and then test the next day. This schedule may be too fast for a regularly paced classroom, where it may be wiser to do either one chapter each week for a semester long course, or one chapter every other week for a year long course. Since the songs are on both CDs and MP3s, parents can play them while their children are in the car. Furthermore, Vocab Tunes Root Words is available as an ebook which can be downloaded from the iTunes store for use on a variety of devices.

In an Amazon review, Anthony Luczac, who has used the program in his own classroom, listed ten main advantages of Vocab Tunes Root Words.  He says that the content is “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.” He added, “Overall, I think this program is more promising than other vocab books and flash cards.” Countless others have benefitted tremendously from the Vocab Tunes series of products, whether it’s the books I’ve authored, or the way in which the Vocab Tunes company continues to be a best-in-class leader in the education space.

For more information, please email vocabtunesteacherscontest@gmail.com or visit us on the web at vocabtunes.com.

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