Teaching vocabulary is a huge part of effectively instructing our elementary students in the English language. Consider:
- English includes a huge number of words – three times the number of words than German and six times more than French.
- Three out of four English words come from other languages.
Teaching vocabulary: from oral to written
Language comprehension grows from oral understanding to written understanding. This means when teaching literacy, teachers should use vocabulary in regular discussion with students that is above their reading level. That's right – I said “above their level.”
Don't “dumb it down” for students because they will understand more when speaking and listening than when they are reading and writing.
In my experience, many first, second and third grade teachers use too many simple words because they think the students won't understand. Teaching vocabulary suffers, because this approach delays the word acquisition that these students will need to be successful in higher grades.
Unsure how to go about it? I'll explain…
Video: adding rigor with high-level vocabulary
Making word connections
Words are learned because we connect new words to words we already know. Children learn about 3,000 new words a year but usually only about 300 of those come from direct instruction in the classroom (spelling lessons or vocabulary lessons). Most are learned through conversation, real-world experiences and reading.
Students who fall behind in this language acquisition are at risk of academic failure. So how can we work more effectively toward high-level vocabulary?
Be a word lover
Highly effective teachers show enthusiasm and interest in words and language. Big words and funny words are interesting to kids, so teachers should seek them out with the same joy. Tossing a big word into your teaching of any subject will cause their ears to perk up.
When they ask what it means, the clever teacher gets to use one of her favorite lines:
“Look it up in one of your resources.”
Students love to use that big word in their own classroom discussions. A simple love of interesting words turns teaching vocabulary into a ongoing, every-curriculum-area process.
Explore multiple word meanings
70% of the most frequently used words in English have more than one meaning.
The meaning of most words that have multiple syllables can be determined by looking at the word’s parts. So teaching common prefixes and suffixes will help students understand new words they encounter.
Use alternate word definitions when working on spelling lists to keep kids aware of the wide variety of our expressive language.
Teach focused vocabulary lessons
Aside from the occasional fun, big word (as mentioned above), we have no time for teaching generalized vocabulary lessons – and there's no need for it.
It is far more effective to tie teaching vocabulary to focused content areas where it can have a huge influence on comprehension.
- Young scientists must know proper scientific terms to understand experiments
- Elementary readers must know tricky vocabulary to fully understand a new book
- Math terms are very descriptive and must be learned in order to accurately complete problems
Teaching fewer content-specific words (for example, math terms or science terms) is more effective than teaching a large number of randomly selected words that aren't related to what is being studied. Students must have multiple exposures to the words and be encouraged to use the words in a variety of contexts.
Intentional vocab teaching
The classic “word wall” is very familiar to primary teachers; it's a great way to build student vocabularies in general. Making a subject-specific word wall takes this tried-and-true technique to a whole new level. Examples:
Create a bulletin board of content-specific vocabulary for science or math. Encourage students to use the words as much as possible. Make a game out of it!
Start a vocabulary board
Create a vocabulary board for words that come up through the course of the day that students have questions about or are unfamiliar with. Encourage students to look up the meaning of the words and write them on the board. Again, encourage use of these words or allow students to give a thumbs-up when they see or hear the word throughout the school day.
Encourage word collecting
Have students start word collections. When they learn a new word, they can write it down in a small notebook. This inevitably leads to sharing between students, which multiplies the learning effect of this approach.
Encourage variety in reading
Encourage students to read a wide variety of texts to improve vocabulary. The texts should be on a variety of topics, genres and levels. Your boy who loves to read only about snakes will need to branch out (with your encouragement) to keep his acquisition of new words on track.
Vocabulary is great fun for elementary kids. If you love big and interesting words, they'll readily follow your lead.
Have ELL students? Here's how to help them make rapid progress.