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There has been a vast and rapid expansion of human knowledge since the latter part of the twentieth century. This continuing explosive growth of knowledge has brought with it numerous words associated with new ideas, concepts, discoveries, and experiences. Each year dictionaries add words that have become part of our language. Textbook publishers revise texts to incorporate new information, including terminology, so as to remain current in the discipline. It is clear that today’s students must develop a much larger vocabulary than their predecessors did in order to read and comprehend a wider variety of texts. Vocabulary knowledge is critical to comprehension.
Gunning (2003) cites studies by Chall and others who found that six-year-old children begin first grade with a store of 2,500 to 24,000 words in their vocabulary. The average for students is approximately 5,000 to 6,000 words. Over the course of their twelve-year schooling experience, students learn about 36,000 more words or five new words per day. It is not possible to learn all of these words in direct instruction, so teachers must approach vocabulary acquisition in multiple ways. Most importantly, their emphasis must be on teaching students strategies that can be used independently for figuring out meanings of the many new, unfamiliar words that they will encounter.
Vocabulary and Concepts
Children are continually acquiring vocabulary by being read to, through conversations, from watching television and films, and by first-hand experiences such as projects, trips, experiments, or following a recipe. It is important that teachers provide numerous, rich activities such as these, use new vocabulary in their teaching, and integrate discussion and writing to enable children to hear a word and grasp the concept it represents.
A word is a label for a concept. The use of concrete experiences, discussions of those experiences, and connections to reading and writing supports students in developing an understanding of a concept and the word associated with it. For example, students about to read a story that includes the word yurt may not know what a yurt is. It is not sufficient to simply define the word. Because it is unfamiliar to most students, they are less likely to remember it or to understand its meaning. To help them to learn the meaning of this word, teachers can show pictures of this kind of shelter or a small example made of clay. They can talk about parts of the world where people live in yurts, compare it to other kinds of homes, and discuss reasons for differences in how people live.
Vocabulary as a Continuum
It is important for both teachers and students to be aware that vocabulary knowledge is a continuum. Introducing words and then reading them in a text does not ensure that students will know those words. Students need frequent and multiple exposures to and applications of words.
Through read-alouds, a print-rich environment, reading, writing, and a variety of first-hand experiences, teachers can move students along the continuum from never having seen or heard a particular word to having heard it but still not being sure of its meaning to recognizing it in context and finally to knowing the word without using any context. This continuum correlates with the four areas of vocabulary: listening vocabulary, speaking vocabulary, reading vocabulary, and writing vocabulary.
The Four Areas of Vocabulary
The continuum of vocabulary knowledge makes clear the significance of reading to children and providing a XXXXX XXXXXteracy environment. It is critical that teachers continually introduce words into children’s listening vocabulary. In addition, teachers must use new vocabulary as they talk with students and must encourage them to use these words as well so that they become part of their speaking vocabulary. Students’ listening and speaking vocabulary figures importantly in their reading and writing. As they move into the intermediate and upper grades, however, they also increasingly encounter words that come primarily from reading. It is imperative that these students read texts in class and outside of class to develop their reading vocabulary. If they do not read, vocabulary knowledge suffers, affecting comprehension and motivation to read. Writing vocabulary is equally important. Daily or frequent writing activities enable students to use what they are learning. At the same time, students’ choice of words in their writing reveals much information about their level of language and vocabulary.
Developing Vocabulary in Instruction
It would be impossible to directly teach students all of the words they need to know. Since it is important that they can independently determine meanings of unfamiliar words that they encounter, they need to learn strategies such as the use of context and dictionary skills. They also need activities that generate interest in and thinking about words. Two effective practices are self-selecting vocabulary from a text and finding examples of taught words outside of school to share with the class.
A central issue concerning vocabulary instruction has been how words from a story can be taught effectively. Blachowicz and Fisher (1996) recommend integrating vocabulary with the pre-reading part of working with a story, using it in activities that tie the words to the story and help students to make predictions for reading. This process utilizes and builds on students’ prior knowledge, actively involves them in thinking about words, and prepares them for reading in a meaningful, time-efficient way. After reading, students continue to work with the words in discussion and in writing.
To introduce new vocabulary, teachers select words that are critical to students’ understanding of a story and aid predictions. This selection process is accomplished as teachers read the story and list words that may be problematic. They eliminate those that they believe students can figure out through decoding, structural analysis skills or context and continue eliminating words until there is a list of critical words to be taught.
Vocabulary should be presented in conceptually related sets, i.e., a group of words connected to a story, to a topic, or to a theme. Teachers begin by activating students’ prior knowledge related to the story or topic, have them apply their prior knowledge as they survey the vocabulary, and then encourage them to make predictions from the vocabulary. As students read, they gain information to confirm or disprove their predictions. After reading, they revisit the vocabulary to clarify and refine meanings and may follow up discussion with writing or further reading to apply and extend what they know.
Graphic organizers are an effective tool for working with vocabulary in an integrated way. They are visual representations that make abstract concepts and information concrete for students and help them to think about words, a text, or a topic. A semantic map is a widely used type of graphic organizer. It is helpful for determining students’ prior knowledge as they brainstorm words related to a keyword or to a topic. If words relating to the story are not offered, the teacher uses prompts to direct students and may add words as well. When students volunteer a word, the teacher writes it in an appropriate category, discusses with the class why certain words go together, and writes the labels that students suggest for each category on the map. Then the words on the map are used to lead to the story and to make predictions about it.
It is helpful to do a semantic map on large chart paper or on an overhead transparency so that students can add categories and add to each category. With experience, semantic maps can be done independently and shared with classmates. They also can be used after reading to extract what students know. There are many other graphic organizers that are useful for developing vocabulary and comprehension strategies before and after reading narrative or expository text.
Other Ways of Introducing Words
Two highly motivating and effective activities that introduce vocabulary and integrate with text are story impression and self-selection of words. To use story impressions, the teacher chooses and lists significant words related to a story’s characters, problem, and events. Students survey the list of words on a chart or a transparency and then use the words to write their own idea of the story independently or with a partner. After they write their impressions, they share, compare, and contrast the different versions. From these stories come discussion and predictions about the actual text.
Students’ self-selection of words is an effective, motivating activity that enables them to assume responsibility for their own learning. In this activity, students skim through a story or an expository text before reading it for words that they want to learn. These words are shared with the group, discussed, revisited after reading, and used in a variety of activities. Blachowicz and Fisher (1996) suggest a self-selection strategy in which students bring two words to class that they have heard or seen and share them with their group. The students vote for the “five to eight words to be learned for the week” (p. 30). The group discusses the meanings of these words and then uses them to write stories, to play word games, or to create charts and posters about them.
Assessing Vocabulary in the Classroom
Ongoing informal assessments that are part of instruction can provide valuable information for helping students to develop vocabulary. Graphic organizers used before and after reading can reveal what students knew and since learned about specific words. A semantic map, in particular, can show the depth and breadth of students’ knowledge of a word. To assess students’ ability to use new vocabulary appropriately, they can be asked to use the words in responses to questions, in stories, or in expository writing. Other ways of determining students’ understanding of word meanings are to have them categorize a group of words, provide a synonym or an antonym for a word, or draw what a word means.
Vocabulary development is a multifaceted task. It is critical to address it experientially in daily reading and writing, in discussion, and through direct teaching. Vocabulary instruction must focus on strategies that students can use independently for ascertaining meanings of words. It should also motivate their interest in and thinking about words.
Blachowicz, C., & Fisher, P. (1996). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.
Gunning, T. (2003). Creating literacy instruction for all children. Boston: Pearson Education.
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