Monday, October 14, 2013

teaching vocabulary

Hi readers. Just a forewarning: this is a bit of a brain dump about vocabulary instruction. I have been thinking a bit about vocabulary instruction, explicit and otherwise. The curriculum we have at school, while it has a decent word list, has really cheesy stories that are inauthentic, don't have a very familiar context for the kids we teach, and the vocabulary words are isolated within the context of vocabulary instruction. We have been puzzling over a more authentic way to teach vocabulary, mainly thinking about better read-alouds, and teaching fewer words that we (and students) can use throughout the day and can be incorporated into a variety of activities and disciplines.

Here's what I currently know about vocabulary and vocabulary instruction:

There's a huge gap in vocabulary before kids enter school based on their socio-economic status.

Most vocabulary (approximately 80%) is learned through someone providing an explanation of what a word means. So, merely reading a wide variety of texts will not automatically increase a child's vocabulary. They need someone (a parent, a teacher, a text) to provide an explanation of what a word means.

Schools aren't doing a very good job of teaching vocabulary, especially in primary grades.

In thinking about teaching vocabulary, it's helpful to think about three tiers of vocabulary. The first tier is everyday verbal vocabulary. The second tier is academic vocabulary, which is basically just words that appear more often in print than in speech but are fairly common words. (These two categories are obviously relative to the speaker.) The third tier is domain-specific language. This is specialized language used to describe very specific ideas in a particular discipline, such as addition, chrysalis, or viscosity.

One really important aspect of understanding word meanings is understanding word relationships. Synonyms, antonyms, shades of meaning such as the degree of strength a word indicates, are all really important aspects of understanding a word. Understanding how words are related through a root helps children be flexible with how they use and understand words.

Categorizing and grouping words by different commonalities is also really important in developing semantic maps of words. Some words describe parts of whole. Some words are related by a common theme, setting, or idea. Thinking about these relationships and organizing words helps build the semantic maps that are a part of truly understanding words. I haven't used concept maps much in my teaching, and when I have it's been mostly in science and math, but it seems like a really powerful (and in hindsight, obvious) tool for teaching vocabulary.

Here are a few resources I found for teaching vocabulary:

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