Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Vocabulary Instruction: Try Word Riffs

Many young readers hit a wall when their reading demands that they decode longer and longer words. Research has shown that instruction in morphology (roots and affixes) can help readers make this transition. Some excellent resources are available for teaching morphological understanding. One that I particularly like is the Word Ladder approach of  Dr. Tim Rasinski. Word Ladder books for various grade levels are readily available from Scholastic, but lately Tim has been posting Word Ladders on his Twitter feed. You can follow him @TimRasinski1 to get his latest freebies. 

I have had success with a variation on the Word Ladder, adding an element of the Think Aloud, in my own teaching. I call it, for lack of a better term, the Word Riff. The idea of the Word Riff is to help students use morphology in decoding, expand student vocabulary, and turn students on to the richness and logic in the English language. 

The Word Riff grows out of each student's Vocabulary Self-Collection Notebook. As a part of the student's interactive notebook they keep for my class (a place for reflections, reading responses, notes, etc.) I ask the students to collect new, unknown, and interesting words they run across in their reading. The student is asked to identify the word, the context (sentence) the word was found in, a best guess definition of the word, and a dictionary definition of the word. If you would like to read more about the Vocabulary Self-Collection Strategy, please see this readwritethink lesson.

Each day I ask student volunteers to share words they have discovered and then the class decides which word they would like to learn more about. It is at this point the Word Riff begins. Essentially, I take the word and talk about its roots, prefixes, suffixes, derivation, and other words which use the same or similar root. In one class a student brought in the word "signatory." The student, doing some research on local history (4th grade), had come across this sentence:

"George Clymer was an early American advocate for revolution and a signatory of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution."

The student told the class he learned from the dictionary that "signatory" meant "signer." So Clymer was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

I took it from here, writing the word, the sentence, and the definition on the board, I began as follows:

"As you can see, boys and girls, both "signatory" and "signed" come from the same root word, in this case the Latin "sign" which means mark or seal. The first thing I notice is that we hear the "g" in signatory", but the "g" is silent in "sign." One thing we need to learn about the English language is that sometimes spelling is preserved to carry the meaning of the word, even if that spelling does not match the way the word sounds. So the silent "g" in "sign" lets us know that this word is related to making a mark. Speaking of making a mark, right away I am sure you noticed that "signatory" is close to "signature." When you put your signature on your assignment you place a mark that lets me know whose paper it is. And there is the word "assignment", meaning some work that you must do or literally leave your mark on it to signal that it is yours. Notice that "signal" also comes from the same root, so that we know to stop working and look to the front when I signal with two fingers in the air. 

Going back to "assignment" for a minute, we might notice the prefix "as-", which indicates something that happens, and the suffix "-ment" which signals that this word is a noun. Some of you may be aware of the insignias that indicate the various houses of Harry Potter's Hogwarts such as Gryffendor. An insignia is a special design that designates membership in a particular group. Notice that the "g" is silent in another "sign" word "design" and then we hear the "g" again in "designate." In both cases the prefix "de-" meaning to set apart. So a design, like an insignia sets you apart as a member of a certain group and when I call on you or designate you to do something, I am also setting you apart with a special "sign."

Finally, I think it is significant that we talk about one more use of the root "sign" that may come up in our reading. I am speaking of course of the word "significant" meaning important. As in, "Your study of roots and prefixes and suffixes is significant." It is important. I would not want to waste your time with teaching you words that were insignificant. I am sure that you can see that by adding the prefix "in-" to significant I have made the word change from "important" to "not important" at all" because the prefix "in-" in this case means "not."

As I am doing this Think Aloud, I write the highlighted words on the board and underline prefixes and suffixes as appropriate. 

Not all words that children come up with lend themselves to so full a discussion of roots and affixes as this one, but many do. Other examples include man- (as in manufacture, manuscript, manual. manipulate, manager, manumission) and graph-  or gram- (as in graphic, autograph, photograph, grammar, telegram) Chrono- (chronic, chronological, chronograph, chronicle, synchronize). Here is a resource for many, many more.

What I want to communicate to children is that words are fun, fascinating, and surprisingly logical in their construction. I want them to know that when  big words are broken down into their component parts they are not so intimidating. I want them to know the joy I take in discovering new words and in discovering ways that words are connected to each other. 

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