Monday, June 9, 2014

Vocabulary Development

      We all know how important it is for our students to learn words, not just how to spell and decode them but I think, more importantly, what those words mean! Research and years of teaching vocabulary has shown me that children DO NOT learn and recall the meaning of words when they are taught in these ways:
  • In Isolation:  Teaching children the meaning of say the word, "dingy" by simply writing it on the board in a concept map, having them look up the definition, write a sentence, and a synonym will not work! It does not work. Believe me, I too did that for years and then wondered why students couldn't remember the meaning of the words I was convinced I had "taught" them! 
  • Hearing or Seeing it Once: Hearing, seeing, or doing something only once will mean one will most likely not be able to recall it later on! This is evident even when adults are asked to learn a new piece of information or complete a new task. Therefore, teaching students a new vocabulary word once, either by using a concept map, context clues while reading, or with a dictionary does not mean that our students will be able to remember the meaning of the word when they late encounter it in a text and they certainly won't be using that word in their writing since they don't recall it!
  • Solely Using Context Clues: We have all used this strategy, I still do just not by itself. Students encounter an unknown word in the text (a word whose meaning they don't know) and are told to read the sentence prior to the unknown word, the sentence the unknown word is in, and the sentence after it, looking for clue words that will help them determine the meaning. However, without direct instruction on which words to look for, why they are to look for those words, visualizing, and thinking of synonyms this strategy will hardly ever work for students!
       Rather, a wide variety of strategies ought to be used in order to successfully teach students new vocabulary words. Words which they know multiple meanings of, words they can correctly use in their own writing and in a conversation. In my classroom I use many of these strategies/ideas in conjunction with one another and have found great success this year in my student's retaining the meaning of newly introduced words. I try to use all of the strategies I mention below as often as I can when teaching students the meaning of new words.
  • Engaging Text: Use a highly engaging text to teach new vocabulary. Once a text has been selected I choose a few unknown words that I'm confident a majority of my students will not know. I then use this text to teach the meaning of the identified word. (Please remember though to not attempt to teach too many new words at once for it will confuse students. Instead focus on one or two words. This year I have used a lot of narrative nonfiction articles from Storyworks, a magazine put out by Scholastic which my students have absolutely loved!! The articles in Storyworks are high interest both for boys and girls and contain a wide variety of challenging vocabulary words. In addition to this magazine I have used a variety of picture books to teach vocabulary, primarily definitions and synonyms.
  •  Cross Curricular: Once the meaning of a new word is taught I try to introduce it across the curriculum as often as possible. The day the new word is introduced in Reader's Workshops I make it a point to not just say it a few times a day (that is primarily so students get used to hearing it) but I also strive to incorporate the new word into my own writing that days while I am modeling in Writer's Workshop ensuring that I either remind students of the definition or give them an opportunity to turn and talk about the meaning of the newly learned word.  
  •  Visualizing and Context Clues: I mentioned the use of context clues as a means to teach vocabulary and cautioned using it. I said that because I feel that using just context clues is ineffective. Instead I use it while also teaching students to visualize, to see, hear, feel, smell, taste what the author is describing, get a picture in their minds, and then use that plus the context clues to determine the meaning of the unknown word.  
  •  Connect to Other Texts: Whenever possible connect new vocabulary from one text to other, whether the word has been seen in one or more texts students have read or a synonym that can be used. Anytime connections are made students are being asked to access their schema, connect the new information to it, then place the new connection into the short term or long term memory. These connections across texts make the word meaningful for students, thus making it more likely for them to recall it later on.
          In the middle of the school year I taught students the meaning of the word, "dingy". We had read it in a Storyworks article, "The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919", found in the January 2014 magazine. I also made sure students knew that dingy was an adjective as I feel knowing which part of speech the unknown word is will ultimately help them determine the meaning of it. I used context clues to aid students in visualizing what the word dingy might be describing. Then I connected it to other texts by reminding students what we had learned about city life in the late 1800's when we read Iron Thunder. Later that week I made sure the word dingy was used in a cross curricular manner when I spoke the word while teaching a lesson on the Revolutionary War, describing what life was like for soldiers. 
          All of these strategies to teach and ensure my students would recall the meaning of the word "dingy" later  on. And they did!!! :) On the second to last day of school they were reading two journal entries, one from a girl living in Philadelphia and one from a girl living on a plantation just prior to to the Civil War. When asked to create a Venn Diagram about the lives each girl had, two groups used the word dingy even though it wasn't found in the text! When asked why they chose this word one student said, "Because one girl lives in an apartment in the 1800's just like in Iron Thunder, and in the Molasses Flood article and the word dingy or dirty was used to describe those apartments so I can use it here too! And the picture in the text shows a dark, dirty place." 
           They get it, they truly do! With a little bit of time, effort, and a plethora of strategies in our arsenal our students can not only learn but recall new vocabulary words! And...they get so exited when they do! Give these strategies a try and see if they work to transform your classroom!

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