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Building Vocabulary


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What Is It?

One of the most important responsibilities of every teacher is to help students develop a strong working vocabulary. Vocabulary falls into four categories:

  1. Listening: the words we understand when we hear them

  2. Speaking: the words we use when talking

  3. Reading: the words we understand when we read

  4. Writing: the words we use when writing

To develop students' vocabulary, teachers must encourage a curiosity about the meaning and use of unfamiliar words and promote the use of strategies that will help students find the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Why Is It Important?

The size of a person's working vocabulary is both a measure of educational attainment and a key to academic and career success. Vocabulary development, for example, is crucial to success in reading. Research shows that the proportion of "difficult" words in a text is the single most important predictor of the difficulty of the text, while the size of a person's vocabulary is the best predictor of how well that person can understand the text (Anderson and Freebody 1981).

Unfortunately, research also shows marked differences in vocabulary development in students from high- and low-income families, with a widening gap during the first three years in the lives of children – much of which can be attributed to the level of verbal interactions that children have with their parents. For example, researchers have found a difference of almost 300 spoken words per hour between parents who hold professional positions and parents on welfare. As a result, by the age of three, children in "professional" families actually had a larger vocabulary than the parents with low-incomes (Hart and Risley 1995).

Research also shows that children who enter school with a vocabulary deficit tend to continue to fall behind through the course of their schooling. If education is truly to be the "great leveler" and provide all children access to the same opportunities, teachers must somehow find ways to reverse this trend and help all children develop a rich working vocabulary.

How Can You Make It Happen?

Strategies for fostering vocabulary development fall into two broad categories: teaching strategies for vocabulary directly and learning new words indirectly. Generally, school-age children learn about 3,000 new words a year, but only about 10 percent of these words come from direct vocabulary instruction. The rest come from their everyday experiences with oral communication, listening to text read aloud, and reading a wide variety of texts independently.

Researchers conclude that teachers can have the biggest impact on vocabulary by increasing the amount of incidental word learning (Nagy and Herman 1987).

Indirect Vocabulary Instruction

Teachers can help students increase vocabulary by including powerful, difficult words in their oral language while they teach, and encouraging students to use those words in their speaking and writing.

Read, Read, Read

The single most effective way of helping students build vocabulary is by increasing the amount that they read. Researchers have found that students who read just 10 minutes a day outside of school demonstrate significantly higher rates of vocabulary growth than students who do almost no reading outside of school (Nagy and Anderson 1984). Students are likely to develop vocabulary more rapidly when the books they read are not only easy enough to read fluently but also contain unfamiliar words. Most importantly, students need to read a lot to have the frequent encounters with words in different contexts that lead to true word knowledge; the sheer volume of reading matters. Find ways to increase the amount of reading that students are doing, and they inevitably will build vocabulary. It's that simple.

Thoughtful Classroom Discourse

Talk is also important. Children whose parents talk to them often on a range of topics come to school with a much larger vocabulary than children from homes where talk is limited. These children do not have a larger vocabulary because they are smarter – rather, they are smarter because they have a larger vocabulary. Assist children with vocabulary deficits by providing them with the same sort of highly interactive, language-rich environment that advantaged children have at home. Engage students in conversations on a wide range of topics, calling attention to the shades of meaning of interesting words in their daily interactions with text (both written and oral), and promote a spirit of curiosity about words and the different meanings that words can have in different contexts. Don't be afraid to use "big words," as this is how students will learn.

Direct Vocabulary Instruction: Learning New Words

Students can learn new words by finding meanings of words in meaningful contexts; using dictionaries, and using structural analysis to find the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Vocabulary in Context

Researchers have found that teaching dictionary definitions of words out of context does not enhance the comprehension of a text containing those vocabulary words (Stahl & Fairbanks 1986). Students need to encounter words repeatedly and in a range of contexts before the words become part of their working vocabulary. For example, McKeown, Beck, Omanson, and Pople (1985) found that students did not really know and understand words they had only encountered 4 times, but they did know and understand words they encountered 12 times.

Using a Dictionary

Students should be taught how to use dictionaries to look up the meanings of unknown words. Small pocket dictionaries are inexpensive and can provide a wealth of information, provided that students know how to use them. Dictionary skills, such as using guide words, understanding parts of speech, and deciphering phonetic spelling, should be explicitly taught and practiced. Dictionaries are also useful in introducing multiple meanings of words. Students can practice working out which of several defined meanings of a word is relevant in a given passage.

Word Walls

Words that are used often or are easily confused can be displayed in a classroom on a word wall. Be selective about which words go on the wall, making sure the words displayed are really those your students need to know. Add words gradually, a few each week, and provide plenty of opportunity for students to say and write them. Students can choose a word and give clues about the word for other students to guess. For example, "The word begins with the same sound as head and rhymes with mouse."

Vocabulary Journals

Encourage students to build their vocabulary every day and keep a vocabulary journal. Students can write 10 words in their journals each week that they have either heard in class or read in a textbook or novel. Have them use context clues or structural analysis to try to figure out the meanings, and then allow them to use a dictionary to check the definitions. Students can use the 10 new words they've learned to write pairs of analogies that express one of the relationships you have reviewed with them. Examples of analogies can be found in the "How can you stretch students' thinking?" section.

Using Context Clues

Most students will naturally use context clues to try to find the meanings of words. For example, given a sentence such as:

Unlike Virginia, who never talked much at all, Stella was a garrulous sort, with more to say than most of us wanted to hear.

A reader who is unfamiliar with the word garrulous may figure out a rough approximation of its meaning based on the contrast of Stella, the garrulous one, and Virginia, "who never talked much at all."

One way to teach using context is to give students text with some unfamiliar words. Have them circle the words they don't know, guess their meanings, and tell how they arrived at their guess. Then have them take turns explaining their guesses. Make a list on the board of the strategies they used. Common context clues include a restatement (signaled by that, is, or, in, etc.), a comparison (signaled by like, similar to, as, or the use of a synonym), or a contrast (signaled by but, not, although, or the use of an antonym).



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