Teaching vocabulary

Teacher with two little boysA recent article by Margaret Ann Richek, Northeastern Illinois University, describes strategies for teaching vocabulary. Vocabulary instruction can be tedious, but Richek describes two effective strategies, Semantic Impressions and Word Expert cards, for introducing new words. Four techniques — Anything Goes, Connect Two, Two in One, and Find That Word — motivate students to practice vocabulary.

Introducing vocabulary: Semantic impressions

The teacher chooses key words from a story or chapter and lists them in the order they appear in the text. Richek stresses that choosing words that are central to the plot will aid students comprehension . After writing a list of five to 20 words on the board, the teacher briefly discusses each word, asking if anyone knows what it means or can use it in a sentence. Next, students work as a group to compose a short story using these words in the order they appear on the board. Words may be used more than once and other forms of the word are acceptable. With the teachers guidance, students create a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Richek has found that stories flow quite naturally in this exercise. As the story develops, the teacher writes it on the board. The class then re reads it, revises and edits it, fixing any grammar or punctuation errors and adding details and adjectives. Sometimes classes make books of their stories. For first-grade students, Richek writes each sentence on a single piece of paper and asks pairs of students to illustrate that sentence. Semantic Impressions is usually done in preparation for reading, but can also be used before listening to a story read by the teacher. Richek has used the strategy in this way for students who speak English as a second language.

Word Expert cards

This strategy can be used when students need to learn vocabulary from a novel or a social studies or science unit. Word Expert cards combine direct instruction, word study in context, and peer teaching. Each student gets the job of being a Word Expert for just a few of the many words to be learned. Students construct cards for each word. The teacher makes a master list of key words, generally containing 50 to 100 words.

Before the novel or unit of study begins, each student is assigned two or three words for which they will become the expert. Students are given the page numbers where they can locate their words. For each word, students prepare a construction paper card that includes an illustration of the word, the dictionary definition and part of speech, the sentence from the text, and a sentence made up by the student.

Students work on a scrap piece of paper until they get the information approved by the teacher and then they words to their classmates. In pairs, they show their partner the illustration, asking them if they can decipher the meaning of the word from it. The Word Expert next reveals the information on the inside of the card, step by step, asking the partner to try and figure out the meaning. After 7 to 10 minutes, the partners rotate with the other students. After the first day of peer-teaching, the teacher can begin the unit or novel, with students having 10 minutes each day of paired vocabulary learning. This strategy has been used in second grade and beyond.

Practice and review techniques

Only practice can ensure that students acquire enough knowledge to understand and use new words comfortably in reading, writing, speaking and listening. These practice strategies take only a few minutes each. Anything Goes is simply the teacher pointing to a word on the word wall and asking students questions about it: What is the meaning of this word? Can you give me two meanings? Can you use this word in a sentence? What is the difference between these two words? Can you use this word and another word from the list in a sentence? Can you spell a past tense, plural or gerund form of this word? What is the part of speech? What is the root of this word? Give me all the prefixes and suffixes you see in this word. In a study with fourth graders, children who reviewed words with Anything Goes for 10 minutes each day for a week showed a 77 percent mastery rate, compared to 43 percent mastery without review.

Connect Two is a way to challenge students to find similarities between two words. The teacher constructs two columns of about 10 words each and asks students to think of something that a word in column one has in common with a word in column two. The similarities are often superficial at first, especially with younger students. The teacher gives examples of similarities in meaning or in structure to move students into a deeper processing of the words.

Two in One calls for writing a sentence for new vocabulary words but with a slight twist. Ask students to put two (or more) words in one sentence. This is much more engaging for students and they form conceptual connections between the words. Students are allowed to use different forms of the words on the list, and this is a source of vocabulary growth. Richek reports that even first graders, after some practice, can put three words in a sentence.

Find That Word encourages students to seek out study words in their environment. They may find them in free reading, nonfiction books, speech, radio or television, or on the computer. Twice a week for about 10 minutes, Richek allows students to come up and read their found sentences to the class, and the sentences are then displayed for a week. Students dramatically increase their awareness and appreciation of vocabulary words, and the exercise provides examples of how words are used in different contexts. Richek reports that students bring in an incredible number of sentences.

“Words Are Wonderful: Interactive, Time Efficient Strategies to Teach Meaning Vocabulary”, The Reading Teacher, Volume 58, Number 5, February 2005, pp. 414-423.

Published in ERN April 2005 Volume 18 Number 4

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