Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's in a Word? Vocabulary Instruction that Works

Words matter. We know that in reading there is a very strong connection between word knowledge and comprehension. Armed with this knowledge teachers have always focused attention on vocabulary in the classroom. Most of us can remember a weekly school routine of being assigned a list of words to look up, write a definition for and use in a sentence. This exercise generally ended with a quiz at the end of the week. The exercise was surely followed by forgetting the words by the end of the next week.

Because words matter, we need a better way to teach words than that old, failed routine. What we need to do is teach words from a conceptual base. The act of learning is the act of connecting the known with the new. In word learning, we need to take advantage of what children know (concepts) to help them add the new (words).

A concept can be defined as an idea of something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars. Words are what we use to describe those characteristics and particulars. So if the concept is journalism, we could generate the words reporter, news article, editorial, feature article, investigative report, magazine, columnist, objectivity, etc. Of course, each of these words is a concept unto itself. The point is that the words are related and it is that relationship that helps us learn words and gain a more sophisticated understanding of the concept.

Perhaps you have had the experience of watching a toddler beginning to develop language, like the child I witnessed pointing to a cat running through the room and saying "See, dog." What this young child is demonstrating for us is a developing concept of pet. At that moment the child looks at all four-legged furry things as dogs, but in a few months the child will have developed a more sophisticated concept of pet, which will now include four-legged, furry things with whiskers that say meow. The word cat will be added to the child's vocabulary and concept of pet.

As teachers, we can take advantage of a child's developing concepts to teach new vocabulary in a way that children can learn and remember. The key insight is that words are conceptually related to each other and we can help students connect new words to known concepts. Here is an instructional strategy that can help you put this knowledge into action.

In the Box, Out of the Box

Suppose we wanted to teach the word proprietor in preparation for some reading the students are about to do. Without telling the students the target word, I would ask the students,  "What would you call the person who is in charge of the 7-11 convenience store in town?" Words students say that seem to fit the description of "who is in charge" are placed "in the box." Words students say that don't fit the concept are also written, this time "outside the box."


At this point I write the target word  proprietor in the box with the synonyms generated by the students and say, "A proprietor is like a manager, like an owner, like a boss. When you read the word proprietor, think of the person who owns the business and oversees the work that happens there." I would then say, "Thanks, also to those who gave us the words outside the box, because to know what a word is, we also need to know what a word is not."

A simple lesson like this acknowledges what we know about learning and what we know about how human beings organize knowledge in their heads. Through this process, we add a new word to a concept that the children already have about store ownership and thereby raise the likelihood the word will be understood and remembered.

Of course, any single encounter with a new word is not sufficient. In order to truly integrate the word proprietor into their vocabulary, students will need to encounter the word many times in their reading and their discussions over the next several days and weeks. One key to helping students build vocabulary,  however, is teaching through a conceptual lens.