There is no doubt that a strong, robust vocabulary is the mark of an educated person. However, moving our students from the mundane to the robust takes intentionality and some practice. Just handing out a page with words and definitions on it is not enough to create a strong vocabulary in our students. Students must interact with words in rich, intentional ways both inside and outside the classroom.
How can we make our vocabulary instruction “meaning-FULL”? The most important thing teachers can do is to choose words wisely. This may necessitate deviating from a list given in a reader or curriculum guide and evaluating each word carefully, adding and subtracting until we keep only the best words.
- Choose words that students can define with words they already know.
Effective instructions links new material to what the student already knows. Nowhere does this hold more true than in vocabulary instruction. Students must be able to define a word with words they already know or the word is not an age-appropriate selection. (No thesauruses allowed!)
- Choose words students are likely to hear, see, or use again.
My first year teaching The Bronze Bow, I taught the word “phylactery” as a vocabulary word; however, actually bringing in a real phylactery was a much better instructional tool. I removed “phylactery” and replaced it with the word “ravenous,” a much better selection. Vocabulary work should be saved for words that cross contexts and times.
- Choose words that have instructional potential.
Words like “tenacity” and “capricious” offer opportunities for character instruction (both positive and negative).
For the past seven years, I have been teaching vocabulary through a system I call a “Vocabulary Work-Up.” Students prepare for the class discussion by interacting with the given words in five ways (see below). They bring their written work to class and share what they have found with the class. The teacher guides the discussion, affirming correct understanding or redirecting student work as necessary. Each student is responsible to follow the discussion and to correct their work based on teacher and peer remarks. This discussion typically takes 60 – 75 minutes (for 10 words). There are no worksheets, memorization of definitions, or extra pencil-work between the discussion and the quiz. Students are encouraged to use a word each day in a sentence with me. The sentences must pertain to their life. This interaction allows me to hear their pronunciation, monitor usage, and correct nuance (and get to know my students a bit better, too!). It allows the student to “own” the words and to begin to incorporate them into their vocabulary. (Each proper sentence earns a small piece of candy.)
Below are the guidelines given to students for their discussion preparation. Each word is “worked up” on a separate page of a marbled composition notebook.
- Context – Find the word in the text and give the complete
- Definition – Look the word up in the dictionary to help you understand what it means. Then, write the definition in your own words.
- Part of Speech – Identify the part of speech of the word as it appears in the context. Leave room to write more uses as we discuss them.
- Synonym/Antonym/Illustration – Choose two:
- Give a synonym (syn.) of the word. Use a word that you already know rather than looking up words in the thesaurus.
- Give an antonym (ant.) of the word. Again, use a word you already know.
- Draw an illustration.
- Original Sentence – Write an original sentence using the word correctly.
This approach has been successfully modified for use in younger grades and intensified for use in middle/high school. Using this approach allows my sixth graders to master 180-200 words each school year and makes vocabulary the most meaning-FULL thing we do all year.
How do you approach vocabulary instruction in your classroom?
(For practical help in vocabulary instruction, check out Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Beck, et. al. This book offers excellent advice for word choice and some superb examples. The companion book by the same authors, Creating Robust Vocabulary, offers practical application as well.)