Nurturing Natural Word Nerds: Help Students Expand Their Vocabulary Through Reading

Teachers invest large swathes of classroom time to vocabulary instruction: defining words, drawing pictures of words, playing word games, reviewing words, quizzing students on words. Quizzes offer teachers 20 minutes of welcome peace while students take them, are easy to grade, and fit tidily into an electronic grade book. Parents are delighted to see their children studying lists of words. It feels like school.

While all this focus on vocabulary is seemingly in accord with the push for college readiness, I worry that students are spending too much time with vocabulary activities and too little time actually learning words. Before calling me crazy, consider the fact that most of the words you know weren’t learned from a vocabulary list but from reading.

Students with robust vocabularies understand more of what they read creating a “Matthew effect” whereby those who already have get more (Stanovich, K., 1986). Since comprehension comes more easily for students who know more words, they tend to read more. The more they read the more competent they become at figuring out unfamiliar words, and consequently the more words they learn.

Rather than teaching long lists of words in an attempt to inoculate students from ever meeting a word they don’t know, we need to expose them to written works that employ rich language and then guide them to become adept at learning words as they read.

Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Building students’ vocabulary implicitly through the close reading of complex texts doesn’t eliminate the need for explicit instruction. Students who can apply their knowledge of Greek and Latin roots and familiarity with affixes, possess powerful tools for figuring out an unfamiliar word’s meaning. Their understanding that words contain meaningful word parts that remain consistent across related words creates a generative effect (Templeton, S. (2004). The vocabulary-spelling connection: Orthographic development and morphological knowledge at instruction: Research to practice (pp. 118-138). New York: Guilford Press.) That said, simply requiring students to memorize long lists of roots and their definitions alone is unlikely to encourage the detective work that the use of such clues invites. Teachers need to seize every opportunity a text or lesson offers to practice unpacking words.

The limits of students’ language define the borders of their thinking.
Carol Jago

Given the enormous number of words in the English language, teachers need to choose carefully which words to teach (Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford.). Trying to pre-teach every word a child might not know before reading can, if one is not careful, take up more instructional time than the reading itself. That said, key words often need to be taught in order for students to make sense of the text.

Not All Words Are Created Equal

Blithely skipping words you don’t know is a recipe for reading comprehension disaster−unless you can be certain that the unfamiliar words are relatively unimportant to the text’s overall meaning. For example, in a description of a bucolic woodland glade where the author regales you with a list of wildflowers, readers might choose to gloss over the meaning of agrimony, baneberry, and gilly-weed, as the overall picture is clear. Though such details are intentionally selected and some nuance will be lost, stopping to look up such words causes readers to lose momentum and possibly the thread of the plot without adding much to their comprehension of the whole.

When instruction and assessment focus only on rarely used multi-syllabic words, we frustrate students. Instead of fostering the love of word learning, we make them feel dumb. Recognizing the limitations of list-based memorization, the College Board is abandoning the testing of “SAT words” in its redesigned exam. The exam will no longer reward the recall of definitions for relatively obscure vocabulary, assessing instead the understanding of words in academic contexts. Students will have to meet words where they live, embedded in the kinds of readings they are likely to be assigned in college coursework.

Learning words is important for more than doing well on a test. The limits of students’ language define the borders of their thinking. Lack of vocabulary hamstrings their ability to express themselves. Word study is an integral part of reading and writing. Let’s treat it as such.

Attending ILA this weekend? Don’t miss Carol Jago’s presentations. See “Teaching with Intention … and Heart!” on Saturday, July 15, at 11 am in Orlando, OCCC, W304H and “Instructional Moves That Matter: Motivating Young Readers” at HMH booth #723 on Sunday, July 16, at 10:30 am.


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