Teaching Vocab: Thou Shalt, Thou Shalt Not

A lot of this article will essentially be a summary of Bringing Words to Life. If you find it helpful, you’ll find the actual book is even better (Find it here). 

Trade books are very helpful in teaching young students new vocabulary. A trade book is essentially a large book that teachers will read out loud to the entire class. These books are helpful because the teacher can pre-teach key words and ask questions as they go. This helps keep every understand the story.

Before choosing a trade book, the teacher must first think about target vocabulary. There are two main rules for picking out target words:

  1. The word must be explainable in words the students already understand.
  2. The word must be useful/interesting/applicable to students’ daily lives.

The first is important because if you must use words outside of a student’s vocabulary when explaining them, then the student will not be likely to understand the target word. The second is important because it will help students remember the word’s meaning and, if it is applicable to their lives, it will give them opportunities to utilize said target word.

The goal with any vocab word is for it to become a permanent part of the student’s vocabulary. (No-one wants a student to forget the words after the unit/test.) To make words permanent, teachers should:

  1. Give students multiple exposures to the word/s over time (spaced and retrieval practice)
  2. Individual Reading
    1. Introduce important words (words that could disrupt comprehension) before students being individual reading
      1. 3-5 words per lesson and ~5-9 per week seem to be the sweet spot
      2. If too many words, students won’t remember their definitions
  3. Group Reading
    1. Introduce words as you encounter them
      1. Add a phrase to describe the meaning and move on
        1. Brief is best (during reading focus on text meaning, not vocab building)
      2. Too many words will disrupt the “flow of comprehension” and students will understand less of the text
  4. Thou Shalt Not
    1. Ask, “What do you think this word means?”
      1. This promotes inaccurate definitions and guessing, leading to misconceptions.
      2. Just tell them and have them apply the words.
    2. Have students regularly look up words in a dictionary as a way to learn new vocabulary
      1. Dictionary definitions are not effective for a myriad of reasons.
      2. Definitions lack context/differentiation due to space constraints
        1. Ex: conspicuous=easily seen
          1. Technically true, but likely to lead to an incorrect understanding of the word’s meaning.
        1. Vague language: definition does not include enough info to be useful to a student
        2. More likely interpretation: dictionary gives a different meaning of the word, student doesn’t know/understand and uses the word in the wrong context
        3. Multiple pieces of information: definition includes a list but doesn’t explain how to apply the list (prescriptive or descriptive)
  5. Instead of dictionaries…
    1. Use student friendly explanations
      1. Capture the essence of the word and how it is typically used
      2. Explain the meaning in everyday language
        1. Ex: exacerbate=an action that makes that makes a bad situation even worse
      3. Student friendly explanations will tend to be longer than a dictionary’s definition
        1. Often include: something, someone, describes

Side note 1: A lot of this is simply good teaching practice and is applicable no matter what subject/content you are teaching.

Side note 2: When words are homographs (sound spelling/sound but different meaning) teachers should not teach all the meanings together as this will confuse students. Teachers should teach the meaning that the context gives.

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