New Teacher Series/ Question 11: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Broadening a student’s vocabulary is important and critical to her academic success.  Having a comprehensive vocabulary increases a student’s ability to read with clarity and to communicate both orally and through writing with precision.  Students who are competent and independent readers often absorb much of their vocabulary from reading, but direct instruction augments that word pool even more. However, vocabulary instruction needs to be embedded and experienced multiple times for students to actually learn and use the words.  By introducing words once, then quizzing kids over the list and moving on, the skill developed is memorization and test taking, not literacy and word acquisition. Vocabulary unrelated to an actual personal, social, cultural, or literary context doesn’t stick in the brain.

Good teachers use a variety of strategies to teach vocabulary in concert with one another. Here are 15 Vocabulary Strategies in 15 Minutes   You will also find teachers using word walls, word journals, word maps, keyword methods, flash cards, vocab Bingo, Pictionary or Jeopardy.  Some strategies involve using the vocabulary words to write songs, short stories, or poetry. One of my favorite vocabulary trends was a call and response script – I can’t even remember the patter now – but it called for kids to clap, rap, and spell out the words and define them orally with me sing-songing and beating on my podium too.  It was fun, but I was still only asking kids to define and memorize words in isolation

About five years ago, I noticed several kids in one class were using some of the words from our vocabulary list during discussion.  I discovered these words not only were on their vocabulary list, but they had appeared somewhere in their reading that year, and—this seemed to be the key— they were words I used all the time.  The one I remember specifically was “truncated.” I love that word. I still use it all the time.  I realized that students were using it in their Socratic discussions and debates in class.

Why? Because they saw it and heard it more than once.  I used it all the time; they saw it in their reading; they knew what it meant, how to pronounce it, and how and when it should be used.  They had assimilated it into their lexicon.

From then on, I began to teach fewer words, but teach them more deeply.  I created a context for the words and allowed students to make connections with the words through discussion, reading, semantic maps, games, or even drawing visual interpretations of the words. I also read Bob Marzano’s great book Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary  which provided me with many great strategies.  You will figure out what strategy scratches your vocabulary itch, but here are three broad conceptual stances that I suggest you develop:

  • Use a rich vocabulary yourself. Just as you must be a reader and writer to teach English Language Arts as a practitioner, you must also have a robust vocabulary and use it.  When you are leading a discussion, when you are describing something in the reading, when you are conferencing, or even lecturing on a concept, use precise, exact language.  You don’t want to use $50 words for the sake of using them; you want to use the specific and accurate word because you are articulate and have a range of rich, complex words to choose from. Develop your ability to speak with depth, nuance, and sophistication.   Describing something as “small” sometimes isn’t sufficient; sometimes that small thing is actually trifling or trivial or insignificant or inconsequential or negligible or nugatory (what an insanely fabulous word!) or infinitesimal.
  • Tap into the emotional shading of words. When you teach vocabulary, suck the marrow out of those words.  Ask kids what emotional baggage a word like “hysterical” channels.  Ask kids to chart the words on a positive to negative cultural continuum.  Ask kids how different generations might perceive a word.  The dictionary definition is flat and static, but the connotative meaning of the word is rich and varied and often dependent on culture, regional geography, and social class. Turn kids on to both the social- and psycho-linguistic power of words.
  • Be a language freak. Create a culture of language in your classroom.  In the words of my colleague Bob Howard when he calls on kids to analyze art in his Art History class, “Remember, we use big words in here! Big, huge, glorious words!”   Point out especially dizzying words in the reading.  Share new words with your students that they won’t be assessed on, just words you have discovered and fallen in love with.   Have a Word of the Day calendar and use it.  Assign this as a job to a kid.  Start your day off with language, maybe challenge kids to use that word throughout the day.    Show kids how to use the online OED
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