By Christine Clark

Part 1

All too often, students study vocabulary words for a test only to never think about them again once that test is over. They don’t realize, or perhaps don’t care, that they are being taught these words to utilize indefinitely, to include as part of their repertoire. Vocabulary is the keystone to comprehension, and developing an understanding of it in a deep way, through use in conversation and writing, is an essential life skill to be successful in a verbal world.

Our students are struggling with vocabulary (as well as reading, spelling, writing, and comprehension) because of an invalid assumption that they will just, “pick this stuff up,” as if by osmosis.(1) Though some may become comfortable and confident with new words on their own, setting the expectation that they will do so without direct, systematic, multisensory instruction is unrealistic. We wouldn’t expect these young people to intuit quantum physics, so why do we presume they will grasp the inherent complexities of the English language?(2)

We need to teach our students to understand words, rather than simply to memorize them. But helping them to develop the many layers of language-based skills required for this level of comprehension, over time as the complexity of age-level vocabulary increases, is no easy feat.

Words can be intimidating! Have you ever wondered:

  • Why can one word have so many different meanings? The word “beat” has well over a page of definitions in the dictionary, including the beat of a drum, beating someone in a race, to beat someone up, “beating around the bush,” etc. There’s a reason those books are so heavy!
  • How can the same word be used as a noun and a verb? Shouldn’t there be a law that it can’t be both?? But no, there’s bear as a noun, the animal; and bear as a verb, as in not being able to bear pain.(3)
  • Why are there words that sound the same, but are spelled and defined differently? There’s going to the store, having two legs, and wanting to have your cake, and eat it too.(4) It’s all just too much to bear.
  • What about words that sound and are spelled alike, but are different in usage, meaning, and/or pronunciation? Take the bow of a ship and a bow in your hair.(5) Just when you thought you had it down, foiled again (and I mean thwarted from succeeding to understand this ridiculousness; not wrapped in aluminum).
  • What are prefixes and suffixes, and how do they relate to the meaning of words? To complicate matters further, let’s add just a letter or two. If you’re adding them to the beginning of a word, it’s a prefix. For example, “re,” meaning to do again: rewrite, reexamine, redo. If you’re adding to the end of a word it’s a suffix, like “s,” which makes a word plural, changes its tense, or shows ownership: rugs, runs, Ben’s.
  • How am I ever going to keep all this straight? Morphology is a great place to start. That’s morpho, meaning indicating form or structure, and logy, meaning the study of. Learning and understanding word formation patterns will unlock meaning. This alone will help students decipher a myriad of vocabulary—particularly many words associated with science and social studies.

Understanding vocabulary involves individually processing the layers of language involved in each and every word. The student must learn to determine a word’s meaning based on a variety of conditions: spelling, which is based on orthographic memory; usage, which involves sentence structure and parts of speech; and context, which refers to the surrounding words. The kicker is that this must be done simultaneously.(6)

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about a kicker in a language blog, as opposed to a sports blog, you see my point. Stay tuned for our next post, when we’ll focus on how to help students gain a full understanding of vocabulary that lasts a lifetime.


(1) Clark, “The Structure of Language,” Copyright, 2010-2015, Christine M. Clark

(2) Clark, “The Structure of Language,” Copyright, 2010-2015, Christine M. Clark

(3) Homonym: a word that is spelled and pronounced like another word, but different in meaning

(4) Homophone: a word that is pronounced like another word, but is different in meaning, origin, or spelling.

(5) Homograph : a word that is spelled the same, but different in meaning or pronunciation

(6) Clark, “The Structure of Language”, Copyright 2010-2015, Christine M. Clark


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