Thursday, March 1, 2018

Buiding Vocabulary: An Overview

The first in a series on teaching and learning new words.

The importance of a strong vocabulary to successful reading is well-documented. Because of its importance vocabulary development is considered one key to a rich language arts curriculum. But while there are many paths to an increased vocabulary, there is no silver bullet, no magic formula, no quick fix for vocabulary. Vocabulary development is the work of a lifetime, a literal cradle to grave activity, a quest that has no end. As teachers our job is, in part, to teach vocabulary, but more importantly it is to set students up to be in the vocabulary acquisition business for the rest of their lives.

First, let's take a look at the many paths that lead students to a rich vocabulary.
  1. Conversation - Children, from the earliest of ages, learn words through conversation with adults and other children. Children who are talked with, rather than talked at, tend to build larger vocabularies. In the classroom it is critical that teachers have real conversations with children and structure the classroom so that children can have real conversations with each other. Conversations are two way streets where participants are expected to listen and also speak. 
  2. Reading - Before children learn to read independently, they learn new vocabulary through read alouds. Once children learn to read independently, wide reading in a variety of genres and on a variety of topics is the single best way to continue developing word knowledge. Read alouds, with teacher explanation of words, should, of course, continue well after children have begun to read independently. In order for reading to lead to improved vocabulary, that reading must be wide awake to the new words the reader encounters. In other words the reader must have a well-developed word consciousness (see below).
  3. Writing - Truly knowing a new word requires many encounters with a word. One good way to reinforce vocabulary learning that comes from reading or direct instruction is through writing. Please note, I am not talking here about writing sentences for words that have been assigned arbitrarily, or the kind of artificial writing created when students are asked to use a set of vocabulary terms in a paragraph. I am talking here of a much more organic approach, where children reinforce new vocabulary by responding to or summarizing what they have read or what new information they have learned. The point of learning new vocabulary is not the words themselves, but the ideas these words convey.
  4. Direct Instruction - Research has shown that students can also learn words through direct instruction. Again, direct instruction does not mean being assigned a list of words to look up, writing the definition, and then writing the word in a sentence. This is not instruction at all, but busy work. Direct instruction means the teacher deliberately discussing a targeted word, talking about its meaning, showing how it is used in context and engaging the children with the word by showing how it connects to their own experience.
  5. Morphemic Analysis - Knowledge of root words, prefixes, and suffixes can also assist students in determining the meaning of a word and in building vocabulary based on common elements. It is helpful when you run across the word "pseudonym" in your reading, if you know that the prefix "pseudo-" means "fake" , and that the root "nym" means name. This knowledge can then help you extend to other words like homonym, synonym, and antonym.
  6. Context Clues - Knowing that authors often leave clues in their writing to help readers determine the meaning of an unknown word is also useful in developing vocabulary. Research has indicated that the use of context clues is most effective when students are directly taught the strategy and the various ways that authors signal the meaning of words. 
  7. Word Histories - The history of words can also be helpful when trying to determine the meaning of a word. Telling word stories can help students develop an interest and curiosity in words. One such story I tell is about the word "sign." It seems that the word sign was once pronounced with the "g" being sounded, but over the years the "g" was dropped and the "i" made long. But the "g" has been retained in spelling to help us with the meaning of such words as signal, signature, signatory, significant, etc.
  8. Consulting an Expert - Sometimes no particular strategy can help and outside help is required. Students need to learn to use resources like a dictionary quickly and efficiently, but I also like to suggest that students should consider other resources that might be available as well. It might be more efficient for the reader to simply ask a classmate (perhaps one with particular knowledge of a particular topic), or the teacher, or another adult.
Just as readers need a repertoire of strategies to decode an unknown word (phonics, word families, chunking, what makes sense?), they also need a repertoire of strategies to determine word meaning. Indeed, any encounter with a new word might involve a bit of recall of instruction, a bit of morphemic analysis, a bit of context, and a bit of consulting an expert. Teaching students these strategies is helpful, but we also need to make sure we teach them to use the strategies flexibly.

Word Consciousness

None of the good vocabulary instruction we do will matter much unless we simultaneously help students develop word consciousness. Word consciousness means an awareness of and a curiosity about new words that will motivate the learning of new words. I have written about word consciousness extensively in this post. Teachers have a critical role to play in developing student word consciousness. First, and most critically that role includes being a model of word curiosity. During read alouds and any other activity, the teacher must communicate her fascination with, enthusiasm for, and love of words, at the ingenious ways that words work, at how the same word can have so many different meanings, at how authors choose to use certain words to communicate certain ideas. 

By skillfully and regularly using think alouds teachers can help students develop their own fascination and enthusiasm for words. Here is an example of a think aloud from a fourth grade read aloud. 

From the reading: The truck farm is located on a beautiful stream in a pastoral setting. 

Boys and girls, I am not sure I know the meaning of "pastoral" in this sentence, so let me see what I can use to help me figure it out. I know that the suffix -al is used on adjectives, so the word is a describing word for the noun "setting." If I take the -al off I am left with the root word "pastor." I know a pastor is kind of like a minister or a priest, but that meaning of the word doesn't seem to make sense here. "Pastor" also looks a bit like "pasture", and this sentence is talking about a farm, so I wonder if the word could mean something along the lines of "like a pasture." That seems to make sense. Let's look the word up and see what the dictionary has to say. So the dictionary says "associated with the country life." So that seems close to what we guessed. The dictionary also says that this is the type of farm is usually associated with sheep or cattle. The word comes from the Latin word pastor meaning shepherd. That also seems to be where the word "pastor" meaning minister comes from, because religious pastors are often referred to as tending to their flock, in this case, not sheep, but the people who attend their church.

In this think aloud I have tried to demonstrate for the children that they can use context clues, morphemic analysis, word histories, and outside experts in combination to discover the meaning of a word and to get the bonus of discovering some interesting ways that words are intertwined in meaning. 

Armed with word consciousness and some word solving skills, students are positioned to grow their vocabulary with each encounter with text.

In future posts in this series, I will look in more detail at other instructional strategies we can use to build vocabulary.