Follow on Bloglovin

Monday, December 29, 2014


How many words should a fourth grader learn in one year? Three thousand, or about eight words per day, according to "Vocabulary Acquisition: A Synthesis of the Research." Wow! That's a lot of words. Let's take a look at strategies that teachers can use to increase their students' vocabularies.

Most vocabulary acquisition is incidental. In other words, kids build their vocabularies through everyday experiences: watching television, playing video games, talking with their parents, and listening to their teachers. My number one instructional strategy is talking "up."

At this stage in my career, it's natural, but with a little practice, any teacher can do it. Let's look at some examples:

Teacher: Yes, you're right, the character does seem to be lazy, but in my mind he's simply lethargic, or lacking energy. Here the teacher is purposely using an appositional phrase to introduce a new word. She does not stop the flow of the conversation to discuss the word; instead, she will consciously circle back to that word several more times that day or week. Knowledge of the word will not be assessed, but you can bet that many students will add it to their vocabularies. Notice, too, that the teacher's phrasing helped students to understand the word's connotation; although lethargic and lazy are synonymous, they have slightly different meanings.

Teacher: This classroom is chaotic today. Do you know what that word means? [Kids briefly respond.] Yes, in the case of our classroom, it means disorganized or disorderly. Ugh! [Teacher writes chaotic on the board and chaos beneath it as she continues talking.] But don't you just love this word? Look at the way it's spelled. Surprising, isn't it? Chaotic is the adjective form of chaos, which in Greek mythology described the messy void from which the universe was formed. This would be a great word for some of you to add to your personal spelling lists. Well, anyway, what are we going to do to improve our chaotic classroom? In this example, the teacher stopped briefly to explore a word. It will be linked to some specific classroom management procedures, and she will use the word again in this context.

Teacher: This poem evokes such nostalgia. Wow. It sends me back to a simpler time in my life, a time to which I'd love to return. Nostalgia is a feeling of longing for a time gone by. What objects or moments in your life evoke nostalgia? [Students relate experiences in their lives. Teacher writes nostalgia on board and makes a bulleted list from student comments.] Would you say that being nostalgic is a happy or sad feeling? [More discussion.] Here students are building solid understanding of a word by generating examples. Again, we introduce an adjective form of the word.

Teacher: In the mid-1800's, various waterways were connected through a series of canals, or man-made rivers. How do you think boats traveled through canals? Interestingly enough, canal boats, which were also called packets, were pulled through the canal by horses or oxen. No, they didn't swim; instead, they walked along paths beside the canal. [Teacher draws simple picture of a horse pulling a canal boat. Students sit up and take notice.] Drawing a picture helps students understand the concept; telling them something unexpected makes them remember!

Again, most new vocabulary comes through day-to-day interactions, not assessed instruction. By purposely sprinkling the school day with new terms, a teacher can maximize vocabulary growth in her classroom. This is why talking "up" is my top strategy.

Content Area Vocabulary
It's impossible to discuss a topic without knowledge of related vocabulary. So, yes, I do focus on content area vocabulary. And, yes, I do assess content area vocabulary. If a student does poorly, I work with him or her and reassess. Content vocabulary is critical. Here's an example:

Word Parts
For 2015, I resolve to do a better job teaching word parts. Sure, we dissect words to find roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Sure, we talk about compound words and forming verb tenses with ed and ing. But that's not enough. Kids need more systematic exposure to Greek and Latin word parts.

This winter, my students will explore the ways Greek and Latin entered the English language. Infoplease offers a brief explanation, as well as lists of common Greek and Latin word parts. They'll keep a journal of roots, their meanings, and words containing those roots. We'll also use word strips to focus on specific roots, like this:

Vocabulary in Context
How should we handle unknown words? It happens to everyone! In order to better understand spoken and written language, students need to develop skills for finding meaning of words in context. At one time, I thought this was intuitive, but believe me, it's not! As I began purposely teaching students to use context clues, their faces lit up with new understanding. "Who knew?" they seemed to say.  Kids must know how to use clues in the sentence, understand appositives, and look at previous and following sentences.

E Reading Worksheets offers a bounty of free worksheets for practicing these skills. After only a few sessions, my students made noticeable gains in using context clues. I keep a stack on my desk to use whenever we have a free moment.

Formal Vocabulary Program
Research shows that direct instruction of vocabulary is probably the least successful strategy, but hey, it's a strategy! Our vocabulary book introduces fifteen new words per week. Considering that we want the students to learn more than eight new words every day, that's pretty meager. But that's okay. The main purpose for using the vocabulary book is to generate and practice vocabulary skills. It asks them to work with synonyms, antonyms, analogies, and more.

Vocabulary Contest
Our class participates in the WordMasters Challenge, a national vocabulary contest. In each of three rounds, students learn denotations and connotations of 25 words then test their skill on a difficult analogy-based test. The reason I like WordMasters is that it gives my class an opportunity to explore 75 words in depth.

While this introduction to vocabulary in my classroom was written for my student teacher, I hope it has provided food for thought to even the most seasoned teacher!