Research on vocabulary instruction reveals a strong connection between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. Despite this, little information about vocabulary instruction is available for teachers. Camille L. Z. Blachowicz and Peter Fisher, National-Louis University, Evanston, Illinois, provide an overview of research on vocabulary instruction in a recent issue of Educational Leadership. Reading comprehension, they note, depends on a strong foundation of oral language. A young student’s reading vocabulary usually lags about two years behind his or her oral vocabulary. Children from low-literacy homes can improve their vocabulary through school curricula that expose them to rich oral language experiences and give them feedback on their developing language skills.
Blachowicz and Fisher propose four techniques for a comprehensive approach to vocabulary development. First, develop word awareness and love of words through word play. Teachers can model a curiosity about and a love of words to create a positive environment for word learning. They should encourage word games such as a “word wall” where students write new words they encounter. The teacher has a contest in which students win points for writing a word, talking about where they found it and then using it. Playing with words enables students to develop a metacognitive understanding of how words work. Second, these researchers advise teachers to deliver explicit instruction to develop important vocabulary.
By using story maps, teachers select four to six words that students need to use to summarize a text. They teach these words through definitional, contextual, and usage information. Activities should take place before, during and after reading. Before students read a text, they need to understand its concept words — the words students might not be able to guess from the context. Teachers use a word, asking students to think what it means. Then students use the word in a sentence and teachers provide feedback.
Teachers must ensure that students hear, read, write and use these words multiple times to reinforce their understanding. Creating synonym sets for new words or demonstrating word meaning through pantomime helps students to solidify their understanding. Students can not be expected to acquire vocabulary from a single contextual exposure. Third, students need to build strategies for independence in learning vocabulary. Activities that focus on the structural analysis or morphology of words and explicit instruction in dictionary use help students acquire the skills to independently figure out new words when they encounter them. Finally, students need to engage actively with a wide variety of books. Book clubs, literature circles, guided reading, independent reading, and time in the library all expose students to a variety of reading material. Reading literature or nonfiction texts to students gives them access to advanced vocabulary that might be too difficult for them to read on their own. But this vocabulary must be discussed, used and played with to cement new word meanings.
“Vocabulary Lessons”, Educational Leadership, Volume 61, Number 6, March 2004, pp. 66-69.
Published in ERN May/June 2004 Volume 17 Number 5