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Building Vocabulary: Debunking Myths and Showcasing Effective Strategies

Education professional Evie Groch of El Cerrito exposes some myths about teaching vocabulary and suggests some strategies that have been successful in schools and homes across the country.

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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El Cerrito Patch welcomes letters to the editor (up to 450 words) and guest columns (more than 450 words) from members of the community. Those interested in contributing can write to elcerrito@patch.com. To see past letters to the editor, please click here. Past guest columns can be found here

Marian MacLeod January 26, 2013 at 08:36 PM
I would like to add some thoughts to the article on vocabulary by Evie Groch. They concern the role of the family in building vocabulary and comprehension before the school years start. Vocabulary begins in the home by talking to children from birth. It includes using appropriate adult language without talking down. Use the big words. They will get them by context. Begin reading to children as infants. Give them their own books. Sit down to dinner as a family and talk about each person's day and about what is going on in the world. This builds thinking skills as well as vocabulary. Encourage crossword puzzles as they expose children to definitions, multiple meanings, prefixes, suffixes and word roots. And when they get to middle and high school, hope they are offered Latin which will guarantee a lifetime of vocabulary comprehension.
Barbara Segal January 27, 2013 at 12:44 AM
Evie, this is an excellent article. I agree with Marian Macleod when she stresses the importance of young children, from infancy, being exposed to conversations and books. And I would like to add to all of the parents out there: Stop texting! Get off your phone! SPEAK to your child about everything and anything around you while you are walking, shopping, waiting in line somewhere... use BIG words and have meaningful conversations!!!! You will help your child succeed in school and in life!!!
Rosevita Warda January 28, 2013 at 06:08 AM
You're right that the family is key, but what about the child that doesn't get this support? Where illiteracy and poverty reigns and parents can't or won't prepare the child? It is estimated that such a child enters school knowing 10,000 less words than its peers. What a terrifying and humiliating experience for that child! Our nonprofit, www.LearnThatWord.org, provides free personalized vocabulary and spelling tutoring to all skill levels, and supports public school elementary classes with free premium coaching. Half of all 4th graders don't read and write at grade level, and 75% of them will drop out of school, because you can't learn without a good vocabulary. Good news is that targeted, smart and effective instruction can close the gap. I hope more people will read this article and build awareness for this "invisible problem!"
Ruby MacDonald January 28, 2013 at 04:50 PM
Glad to read such great comments from Marian, Rosevita and Barbara! I would give a special plug for Evie's suggestion that students learn Latin or Greek roots which appear frequently. Spotting them and using them to puzzle out meanings of new words can become a game with lifetime rewards. As a former high school biology teacher, I found "roots" especially helpful in understanding the language of biology -- and other academic subjects, too!

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