Effective vocabulary teaching and learning have always been interests of mine. I have written before about the importance of expanding one’s vocabulary knowledge and deep comprehension of words.
Additional research appears almost daily to support this belief of mine. Perhaps we should now take the time to expose some myths about teaching vocabulary and suggest some strategies that have seen success in schools across the country and in homes.
According to Nancy Padak, vocabulary expert from Kent State University, there is a statistical link between someone’s vocabulary knowledge, comprehension ability, and academic success.
What does this mean for students entering school? Although we have known since 1999 that children from advantaged homes have passive vocabularies that are five times larger than the vocabularies of children from low-income homes (according to research by Hart & Risley), we haven’t stressed the devastating effects this could have for our society.
In low-income homes, parents spoke significantly fewer words to their children, and most of them consisted of commands rather than words used in expansive conversations. This gap only grows wider as time goes on.
If a student learned nine new words a day, that would only increase his/her vocabulary by just over 3,000 words a year.
Common Vocabulary Teaching Myths
- Many mistakenly think assigning a student the task of looking up the definition of a word will help him/her learn the word. Students must know much more to make the word their own: its multiple meanings in different contexts, its pronunciation and part of speech, its spelling, and its structure.
- Weekly vocabulary lists are not an effective way to absorb new words. Learning requires connecting new information with prior knowledge.
- It is not necessary for teachers to teach all the hard words, especially those printed in texts in italics or bold font. Instead, the criteria for selecting new words to teach should include the answers to these questions: Do students already know the word? Is it essential to understanding the reading at hand? How frequently will it appear in future readings?
- Many believe that young learners can’t easily learn Latin and Greek roots. Research from 2011 by Rasinski, Padak, Newton, & Newton shows that we should no longer be waiting until upper grades or content areas to introduce them. Primary grade students should be introduced to them as well.
- If all students did to learn new words was write them multiple times, copy their definitions, complete worksheets on them, drill with flashcards, and take tests on them, they would be right is saying word learning isn’t fun. There are much better ways to engage students in learning words: games such as Scrabble, Boggle, Balderdash, Buzzword, Dictionary, Crossword puzzles, jumbles and other online games.
What are the better strategies?
More than 60 percent of academic words have word parts that always carry the same meaning. Learning these roots (from the Greek and Latin) helps students break them down into meaning units.
- Words should be presented in “student-friendly” language, along with examples, and nonlinguistic representations.
- Student should restate the terms in their own words, linking them to their background knowledge.
- Students need to create their own graphic to remind them and reinforce the understanding of the word.
- Through writing or conversation, students need to use the term in more than one context.
- Students should discuss the words with peers, in class, and with others.
- Vocabulary games, even ones they invent themselves, give them more exposure to and engagement with the new words.
More than anything else, excitement about playing with words and creating word games involve students deeply in the learning process, and linking these games (ones that students can make up themselves) with Latin and Greek suffixes, offer them a tool they can take with them anywhere.
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