Last time, we reviewed some of the reasons why vocabulary development can be so difficult for students. Now, we will focus on ways to help students begin to gain a full understanding of language that will last a lifetime. Vocabulary is learned through a wide variety of mediums, including conversation, watching television, listening to the radio, etc., but for the purposes of this post we’ll refer to strategies to help students master vocabulary within assigned academic reading.
As students are reading, they should get into the habit of highlighting or underlining words they are unfamiliar with. They should venture a guess at a word’s meaning based on context. Then, with an adult, the student should look up those words in the dictionary. Just to be clear, I mean an actual dictionary—not Google (though, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online is acceptable).
Together, they should review the definitions listed to determine which one is accurate for this particular usage. A good rule of thumb is that it is always better to learn fewer things well than to learn many things superficially, and the singular focus here is crucial. Only once a student owns a definition based on specific usage and context should the lesson move on to alternate meanings. So, for now we will continue to focus on vocabulary in a singular context.
Students should write the word they have just learned on the front of an index card. On the back, they should list:
- the definition
- the sentence from their reading where the word was used, and
- the part of speech pertaining to this particular definition
This index card strategy will help facilitate comprehension. I’ll pause again here to note that I really do mean write, as in with a pencil. Writing is a language-based skill that helps students develop muscle memory through a direct brain/hand connection. It may be old-school, but it’s critical to the learning process.
Many technologically savvy schools now require students to keep digital vocabulary lists. Typing words can be a beneficial study activity as well, but should only be done once the student has written out their index cards by hand. And that’s typing letter by letter, not copying and pasting, which has no multi-sensory benefit.
Acquiring vocabulary is a skill that needs to happen over time, and to facilitate this, students need to be working at it every day. Utilizing game-like study activities can help, such as:
- Have the student lay down 10 of their index cards at a time, word-up. Start with relaying definitions to her and asking her to tell you which word they go with. Then, ease into pointing out a word and asking her to define it. To take it one step further, incorporate contextual information into your questions (i.e. if the word is acquitted, ”How would a person feel if they were acquitted? Why?”) As she answers, make three piles: words the student knows very well, words the student is moderately familiar with, and words the student does not know. Repeat the activity with the cards from the second and then third pile until the student seems to know all the words very well. Then lay them all out again and start from the beginning.
- Have the student lay down 10 cards at a time, definition-up. Have her read them aloud one at a time and try to recall the word that the definition goes with. If she gets stuck, you can cue her with the first sound of the word. If she continues to be unsure, you can offer her multiple choice options. As with the above, divide the cards into piles and continue to work through them until she has mastered them all.
- Read the student one sentence at a time from the book their vocabulary words have come from and have her fill in the missing word using a word list.
- Have the student sort their index cards by different things, like part of speech, or number of syllables in each word.
- Give the student additional examples of their vocabulary used appropriately in new sentences. Using them in multiple contexts will help her to become more generally comfortable with these words
Although we have been focusing on vocabulary development with regard to academic reading, these same tactics can be used when students learn new words from any source. When you’re watching television with your child, listening to the radio in the car, or reading them a bedtime story, and come across a word you think they may not know, take a moment to review. If you’re near a dictionary, look it up together, or make a note to do so later if you’re not. Work the word into conversation later that day or week, and encourage them to do the same. What it ultimately comes down to is that language is unavoidable. It’s everywhere, and every moment can be a learning moment if you take the time to make it one.