Teaching word meanings should be a way for students to define their world, to move from light to dark, to a more fine-grained description of the colors that surround us.
Successful comprehension is, in some significant part, dependent on the reader's knowledge of word meanings in a given passage. Baker, Simmons, and Kame'enui1 state, "The relation between reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge is strong and unequivocal. Although the causal direction of the relation is not understood clearly, there is evidence that the relationship is largely reciprocal." The good news for teachers from research in vocabulary development is that vocabulary instruction does improve reading comprehension (Stahl2). However, not all approaches to teaching word meanings improve comprehension. This chapter will describe some of the most practical and effective strategies that high-school teachers can employ with diverse learners to enhance vocabulary development and increase reading comprehension.
1 Baker, S. K., D. C. Simmons, and E. J. Kame'enui. "Vocabulary acquistion: Instructionaland curricular basics and implications." In D. C. Simmons and E. J. Kame'enui (eds.), What Reading Research Tells Us About Children With Diverse Learning Needs. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988, pp. 219–238.
2 Stahl, S. A. Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1999.
There are a number of traditional teaching practices related to vocabulary that deserve to be left in the "instructional dustbin." The key weakness in all of these practices is the limited or rote interaction students have with the new word/concept. Let us quickly review the most common of these less effective approaches.
The common shortcoming in all of these less effective approaches is the lack of active student involvement in connecting the new concept/meaning to their existing knowledge base. Vocabulary learning, like most other learning, must be based on the learner's active engagement in constructing understanding, not simply on passive re-presenting of information from a text or lecture.
Reviewing the research literature on vocabulary instruction leads to the conclusion that there is no single best strategy to teach word meanings but that all effective strategies require students to go beyond the definitional and forge connections between the new and the known. Nagy3 summarizes the research on effective vocabulary teaching as coming down to three critical notions:
The following section will explore some practical strategies that secondary teachers can employ to increase the integration, repetition, and meaningful use of new vocabulary.
The largest influence on students' vocabulary is the sheer volume of reading they do, especially wide reading that includes a rich variety of texts. This presents a particularly difficult challenge for underprepared high-school students who lack the reading habit. The following strategies can help motivate reluctant readers:
Secondary students certainly need to know how and when to use a dictionary to look up the meanings of unfamiliar words. Surprisingly, many adolescents lack even the most rudimentary dictionary skills and benefit from some explicit instruction. Without training and guidance, less proficient readers and English language learners are apt to encounter numerous difficulties as they struggle first to locate and then to effectively navigate a lengthy dictionary entry.
Many students do not own a dictionary, and if they do, it is often not a very powerful or appropriate resource for clarifying word meanings. English learners may carry a bilingual dictionary, but this resource is generally inadequate for several reasons. First, long-term bilinguals or more recent immigrants with disrupted educational histories may have limited academic vocabulary in the home language. When looking up the meaning of a term such as categorize or stereotype, a bilingual youth may very well encounter an unfamiliar word in the native language. Simply copying a translation does little to promote reading comprehension. Further, the small bilingual dictionaries carried by secondary students offer limited and often inaccurate definitions. An electronic dictionary may be equally unproductive for a bilingual or less proficient reader tackling grade-level curricula, as it tends to offer scant definitions and no contextualized example sentences. An electronic dictionary is useful for a quick fix, but it is not the most considerate resource for a student operating from a weak academic vocabulary base while completing grade-level assignments. Another common language arts resource, which is likely to utterly demoralize an under prepared reader, is an adult thesaurus. To benefit from an array of synonyms, a reader must operate from a solid academic vocabulary base. Less proficient English users will generally have no ability to gauge contextual appropriateness and will end up infusing their written work with glaringly inappropriate word choices.
A traditional collegiate dictionary is probably a less effective resource for students daunted by grade-level literacy tasks. High school classrooms are predictably equipped with only college-level dictionaries, which are actually designed for a proficient adult reader possessing a relatively sophisticated vocabulary base and efficient dictionary skills. This does not describe the average high-school student, whether she or he is reading at or below grade level. Collegiate dictionaries can be extremely frustrating resources for most adolescent readers because they do not integrate the support mechanisms of a "learners' dictionary."
Many publishers, including Longman and Heinle & Heinle, have developed a line of manageable "learners' dictionaries" for secondary students who need a more user-friendly dictionary to assist them in content area coursework. A learner's dictionary characteristically includes fewer yet more high-frequency definitions, written in accessible language and complemented by an age-appropriate sample sentence. English language learners and less proficient readers benefit from the clear, simple definitions and common synonyms as much as from the natural examples illustrating words and phrases in typical contexts. These dictionaries are also easier for students to utilize than collegiate dictionaries because the entries are printed in a larger type size and include useful and obvious signposts to guide them in identifying the proper entry. A final advantage is that many learners' dictionaries may be purchased in book form, along with a CD-ROM providing pictures, audio, and pronunciation of headwords.
Developmentally-appropriate lexical resources are fundamental to providing all students, regardless of their level of English proficiency or literacy, with greater access to grade level competencies and curricula. A democratic language arts classroom, marked by cultural and linguistic diversity, must include considerately chosen and manageable dictionaries for less proficient readers, to enable them to develop more learner autonomy and to assist them in completing independent writing and reading tasks.
Students with weak lexical skills are likely to view all new words as equally challenging and important, so it is imperative for the teacher to point out those words that are truly vital to a secondary student's academic vocabulary base. Unfortunately, teachers who gravitated toward English instruction, in great part out of a passion for language and literature, may find all words of equal merit and devote too much instructional time to interesting and unusual, yet low-frequency, words, that a less prepared reader is unlikely to encounter ever again. This lexical accessorizing is overwhelming to a reader who may be striving simply to get the gist of a novel, and it proves to be even more daunting as the student attempts to study a litany of unfamiliar terms. Graves and Graves4 make a helpful distinction between teaching vocabulary and teaching concepts. Teaching vocabulary is teaching new labels / finer distinctions for familiar concepts. In contrast, teaching concepts involves introducing students to new ideas / notions / theories / and so on that require significantly more instruction to build real understanding. Teachers can get more out of direct vocabulary work by selecting words carefully. More time-consuming and complex strategies are best saved for conceptually challenging words, while relatively expedient strategies can assist students in learning new labels or drawing finer-grained distinctions around known concepts. Making wise choices about which words to teach directly, how much time to take, and when enough is enough is essential to vocabulary building.
Tips for selecting words:
Words that are new to students but represent familiar concepts can be addressed using a number of relatively quick instructional tactics. Many of these (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, examples) are optimal for prereading and oral reading, which call for more expedient approaches.
3 Nagy, W. "Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension." Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1988.
4 Graves, M. and Graves, B. Scaffolding Reading Experiences: Designs for Student Success. Norwood, MA.: Christopher Gordon 1994.
5 Stahl, op. cit.
Selecting and teaching conceptually demanding words is essential to ensuring that diverse learners are able to grapple with the "big ideas" crucial to understanding a challenging text. Complex concepts require more multidimensional teaching strategies. The next section will elaborate on a number of these techniques: list-group-label, possible sentences, word analysis (affixes and roots), and concept mapping.
This is a form of structured brainstorming designed to help students identify what they know about a concept and the words related to the concept while provoking a degree of analysis and critical thinking. These are the directions to students:
Working in small groups or pairs, each group shares with the class its method of categorization and the thinking behind its choices, while adding words from other class members. Teachers can extend this activity by having students convert their organized concepts into a Semantic Map which a visual expression of their thinking.
List-group-label is an excellent prereading activity to build on prior knowledge, introduce critical concepts, and ensure attention during selection reading.
6 Taba, H. Teacher's Handbook for Elementary Social Studies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley 1988.
This is a relatively simple strategy for teaching word meanings and generating considerable class discussion.
Stahl8 reported that Possible Sentences significantly improved both students' overall recall of word meanings and their comprehension of text containing those words. Interestingly, this was true when compared to a control group and when compared to Semantic Mapping.
7 Moore, P. W. and S. A. Moore. "Possible sentences." In E. K. Dishner, T. W. Bean, J. E. Readence, and P. W. Moore (eds.), Reading in the Content Areas: Improving Classroom Instruction, 2nd ed.,1986. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt pp. 174–179.
8 Stahl, op. cit.
Many underprepared readers lack basic knowledge of word origins or etymology, such as Latin and Greek roots, as well as discrete understanding of how a prefix or suffix can alter the meaning of a word. Learning clusters of words that share a common origin can help students understand content-area texts and connect new words to those already known. For example, a secondary teacher (Allen9) reported reading about a character who suffered from amnesia. Teaching students that the prefix a– derives from Greek and means "not," while the base mne– means "memory" reveals the meaning. After judicious teacher scaffolding, students were making connections to various words in which the prefix a– changed the meaning of a base word (e.g., amoral, atypical). This type of contextualized direct teaching meets the immediate need of understanding an unknown word while building generative knowledge that supports students in figuring out difficult words in future reading.
Learning and reviewing high frequency affixes will equip students with some basic tools for word analysis, which will be especially useful when they are prompted to apply them in rich and varied learning contexts. The charts below summarize some of the affixes worth considering depending on your students' prior knowledge and English proficiency.
|Prefix||Meaning||% of All
|un||not; reversal of||26||uncover|
|re||again, back, really||14||review|
|in / im||in, into, not||11||insert|
|dis||away, apart, negative||7||discover|
|en / em||in; within; on||4||entail|
|a||not; in, on; without||1||atypical|
Similarly, a quick look at the most common suffixes reveals a comparable pattern of relatively few suffixes accounting for a large percentage of suffixed words.
|Suffix||Meaning||% of All
|-s, -es||more than one; verb marker||31||characters, reads, reaches|
|-ed||in the past; quality, state||20||walked|
|-ing||when you do something; quality, state||14||walking|
|-ly||how something is||7||safely|
|-er, -or||one who, what, that, which||4||drummer|
|-tion, -sion||state, quality; act||4||action, mission|
|-able, -ible||able to be||2||disposable, reversible|
|-al, -ial||related to, like||1||final, partial|
There are far too many affixes to directly teach them all; however, it is important to realize that relatively few affixes account for the majority of affixed words in English. Thus, it is helpful to explicitly teach high-utility affixes (meaning and pronunciation) and assist students in making connections as they encounter new vocabulary containing these parts. Once these basic affixes have been mastered, it can be useful to explore more complex or less frequent word parts, such as the following:
|pro-||in favor of, before||protect|
|-ism||state, quality; act||realism|
Additionally, focused word study that builds student knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, or bases, can be of significant assistance to secondary students. Diverse learners in particular, are unlikely to have read enough or engaged in enough academic conversations beyond school in which key roots were clarified. Linguists estimate that well over 50 percent of polysyllabic words found in English texts are of Latin or Greek derivation, underlining the importance of ensuring that students learn "English from the roots up."
9 Allen, J. Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4–12. York: ME Stenhouse 1999.
|-dict-||speak, tell||Latin||dictate, predict|
|-min-||small, little||Latin||minimize, minimum|
|-duc(t)-||lead||Latin||deduct, produce, educate|
Tips for Word Study of Latin and Greek Roots
Research by Frayer et al. supports the strategy of teaching concepts by
Others have had success extending this approach by guiding students through representation of the concept in a visual map or graphic organizer. The Clarifying Routine, designed and researched by Ellis et al.,13 is a particularly effective example of concept mapping. These are the steps:
|Core Idea: Any Work That Uses Wit to Attack Foolishness|
A story that exposes the acts of corrupt politicians by making fun of them
A story that exposes the acts of corrupt politicians through factual reporting
Charles Dickens used satire to expose the problems of common folks in working-class England.
• Can be oral or written.
• Ridicule or expose vice in a clever way.
• Can include irony exaggeration, name-calling, understatement.
• Are usually based on a real person or event.
• Political cartoons on the editorial pages of our paper.
• Stories TV comics tell to make fun of the President—like Saturday Night Live.
• My mom's humor at dinner time!
10 Ellis, E. (1997). The Clarifying Routine. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises 1997.
Tips for Using the Clarifying Routine
Because vocabulary plays such a central role in English language arts instruction, it makes sense to assess students' comprehension and mastery of essential words and phrases introduced during the course of a unit or lesson. However, so much new vocabulary may be highlighted in any given lesson that it makes sense to prioritize words for students and to clearly stipulate those that are most important and that you intend to include in an assessment.
During language arts instruction and assessment, it is helpful to make a distinction between words that should simply enhance a student's receptive vocabulary and words that should ideally enter a student's expressive vocabulary. A student's receptive vocabulary comprises to words that are recognized and understood if presented in a rich and meaningful context when he or she is listening or reading. This does not mean that the student necessarily feels comfortable using words in either conversation or writing. A student's actual expressive vocabulary is those words that the individual can use both confidently and appropriately. When designing vocabulary assessments, it seems reasonable to include a majority of foundational words that are truly critical to a student's grade level academic lexicon—more high-frequency terms that the learners are likely to encounter both within and outside of the language arts classroom as they progress in their schooling.
Traditional vocabulary assessments can reveal little about a student's actual word mastery, particularly those assessments that require simple matching, a written definition, or use of the word in an original sentence. While a student may be able to recall a memorized definition and an example sentence provided by the dictionary or the instructor, there is no guarantee that the student can actually use the word with facility. Many students have refined their skills in rote memorization and succeed with these rote-level assessments. Then a week later they proceed to misapply the terms in the next writing assignment. For this reason, teachers should refrain from designing quizzes that merely tap into students' short-term memorization and should instead require critical thinking and creative application.
There are many ways to design more authentic vocabulary assessments. Following are three meaningful and alternative assessment formats that require relatively little preparation time:
In sum, there are countless additional strategies that teachers can employ to assist students in building their vocabularies. However, it is essential to keep in mind that promoting extensive reading, carefully selecting which words to teach quickly and which to teach extensively, and choosing strategies that help students make cognitive connections between the new and the known are at the heart of effective vocabulary building. Last, the more intangible notion of taking delight in the world of words, modeling one's own love of language, pushing the "lexical envelope" is less subject to research study but nonetheless certainly worthy of consideration.
Allen, J. Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4–12. York, ME: Stenhouse 1999.
Baker, S. K., D. C. Simmons, and E. J. Kame'enui. "Vocabulary acquistion: Instructional and curricular basics and implications." In D. C. Simmons and E. J. Kame'enui (eds.), What Reading Research Tells Us About Children With Diverse Learning Needs. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988, pp. 219–238.
Ellis, E. (1997). The Clarifying Routine. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises 1997.
Graves, M. and Graves, B. Scaffolding Reading Experiences: Designs for Student Success. Norwood, MA.: Christopher Gordon 1994.
Moore, P. W. and S. A. Moore. "Possible sentences." In E. K. Dishner, T. W. Bean, J. E. Readence, and P. W. Moore (eds.), Reading in the Content Areas: Improving Classroom Instruction, 2nd ed.,1986. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt pp. 174–179.
Nagy, W. Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension. Newark, DE: International Reading Association 1988.
Stahl, S. A. Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books 1999.
Taba, H. Teacher's Handbook for Elementary Social Studies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley 1967.