Article

Understanding Vocabulary

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

We asked Francie to answer questions we thought you would have about vocabulary:

Why is vocabulary s-o-o important?

Vocabulary is critical to reading success for three reasons:

  1. Comprehension improves when you know what the words mean. Since comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading, you cannot overestimate the importance of vocabulary development.
  2. Words are the currency of communication. A robust vocabulary improves all areas of communication — listening, speaking, reading and writing.
  3. How many times have you asked your students or your own children to “use your words"? When children and adolescents improve their vocabulary, their academic and social confidence and competence improve, too.

What words do I teach?

Knowing what words to teach is the first step in providing effective vocabulary practice. I have a favorite mnemonic device that helps me remember the types of words I want to teach explicitly:

  • Type A Words: These words are like Type A personalities. They work hard in order to convey the meaning of the text being read. There are two sources for these words: Academic Language and the Content Areas. Academic Language describes the language of schooling — words used across disciplines like genre and glossary. Content Area words are specific to the discipline — words like organization in social studies and organism in science. If you want your students to “get it,” these are the must-know words.
  • Type B Words: These words are the Basics. There are hundreds of high-frequency words. The basics make up a large percentage of student reading and writing. Students must be able to read words like the, is, and, are, been and because — well, because.
  • Type C Words: The Connectors act as signal words. There may be some overlap with the basic words. Students need to understand the signals for cause and effect relationships, sequence and other important indicators of how text is organized.
  • Type D Words: D is for Difficult — words with multiple meanings are challenging for all students and may be especially so for English-Language Learners. You may have students who simply freeze when a question is asked such as “What are the factors that contributed to the Civil War?” However, they could have answered the question correctly if asked, “What were the causes of the Civil War?” Students may think they know the word factor — from Fear Factor on television or from factors in mathematics and yet they may be challenged when the word is used in another context.

    When considering words with multiple meanings also pay attention to the consonant-vowel-consonant words children encounter when first learning to read — words like jam and ham. These words have accessible meanings if you think of the sweet, sticky stuff on toast (jam) or something you may eat with eggs in the morning (ham). It is a lot more difficult if you “elaborate” as Dr. Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University describes:

Diagram: Jam could mean Music Play Session, Toast Topping, or Traffic Tie-Up

So learning to decode should not be meaning-free, but should provide a great opportunity for teaching the meanings of words including multiple ones. This kind of experience with words improves comprehension.

  • Type X Words: X is for the eXtras. These are the words that will not be encountered frequently but in a certain story or context are important to meaning. A good example of this type of word is spindle in “Sleeping Beauty.” It is important to the fairy tale, but it is not a very high-utility word. I just tell kids what words like this mean without any special teaching.

How do I teach?

Words! Words! Words! A student’s vocabulary — the words he or she can understand when reading and listening and use when writing and speaking are critical to success in school. This is the reason vocabulary is an essential element of effective reading programs as described in up-to-date research documents. The importance of vocabulary is made clear by Dr. Catherine Snow when she presents the following on what teachers need to teach:

  • 26 letters of the alphabet
  • 44 phonemes
  • 75,000 words

It is clear that teachers must teach the sounds and letters systematically and explicitly — the challenge is how to teach 75,000 words.

Most basal reading programs teach about 20 words a week for about 24 weeks. If students learn 480 words for 12 years of schooling, it will not add up to the 75,000 to 120,000 (according to various estimates) words students need to succeed. To help students develop a robust vocabulary, all teachers, at every grade and in every subject, are vocabulary teachers. The following methods are supported by the research provided in the next section.

  • Direct Instruction: Explicit teaching of carefully selected words improves understanding and helps students’ vocabulary grow. Often, it is best to pre-teach key words.
  • Wide reading: Reading of texts helps expose students to many words including rare words — not high in frequency but high in important meaning. “Time on text” will have the highest payoff in terms of helping students learn many, many words.
  • Words In Context: Students will learn most new words in the context of reading and writing. The two best ways I can think of to enrich the context for word learning is to read and discuss books.
  • Books: My favorite book of the moment for teaching vocabulary is Alvie Eats Soup by Ross Collins. Even though is it is a picture book, it could be used from kindergarten through the early middle grades with concrete words like soup to abstract ones like irony. One of my favorite parts is the many words used to express concern about Alvie’s soup diet. Students need to be systematically exposed to book knowledge by being read to and by reading text on their own. The text must be carefully selected in order to connect students’ content from all of the arts and sciences.
Sample pages from Alvie Eats Soup
  • Talk: Try to infuse formal and informal conversation to model effective use of language and to focus on the introduction of new vocabulary. I used to write particular phrases or words to introduce each week in my lesson plan book. On one occasion when no one seemed to be doing well independently I said, “I am at the brink of my endurance!” I had everyone’s attention as they wanted to figure out what I meant. After our talk, I heard the phrase used on the playground and the individual words used in a variety of ways.
  • Word Study: When students learn about the parts of words, prefixes and suffixes, and about root words, they are able to figure out many new words. Also, looking at the origin of words — words from other languages — increases word and world knowledge.
  • Word Consciousness: Being on the lookout for words, finding out what they mean, engaging in wordplay, looking for multiple meanings and looking up words in the dictionary all support the acquisition a powerful vocabulary.

  • Subjects:
    Vocabulary, Teacher Tips and Strategies
  • Skills:
    Vocabulary
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