Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Improving Vocabulary: A Few Things To Do Today

from here.
In some of the schools where I work, teachers are on about improving their students' vocabulary and that is very good news.  In this post I am outlining a few ways you can do that at school or at home.  First, let's consider what it means to know a word.
Knowing a word means knowing not only the meaning, but knowing the contexts in which that word is used; it means knowing related words and ideas; it means knowing when and where to use the word.  (Harmon, Hedrick, Soares, & Gress, 2007, p. 138).
Vocabulary knowledge is not binary (you know it or you don't know it). Understanding the contexts in which a word is used is critical.  Additionally, it is not just the word we need to know, but also the words that surround it.

For example what does the word sofa mean?

How does our understanding of the word, sofa, shift when we consider it alongside: couch, settee, davenport, futon, or chaise?  Knowing a word also means knowing the word alongside other words.

How does the word sofa, take on different meaning when you think about it after viewing this:

The term, sofa is larger than a single understanding of the word, yes?  Bakhtin said: living word relates to its object in a singular way: between the word and its object, between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme, and this is an environment that it is often difficult to penetrate (Kindle Locations 3902-3903)
Helping young people to acquire deep semantic knowledge of words and the sophistication and power that comes with understanding that words exists within an elastic environment is important work.  Here are a few ways to get you started and/or to look critically at the work you have been doing already.

1. Query how much time students actually read.  How many minutes a day are students putting eyes on text (paper and/or screen) and reading?  Go ahead and clock this for a day.  It helps to consider the range of readers you have at school or at home when thinking about the amount of time spent reading.  Please note that this accounting should NOT include any other reading activities apart from writing alongside the text (in the margins, etc.) while reading.  Everything else is not reading.

Increasing reading time as little as ten-minutes more in the classroom/home for sustained reading will increase vocabulary knowledge. For intermediate grade children and older, reading daily for 30 sustained minutes can be a good goal as well.  It is important that students have choice and texts they can manage at their fingertips.  Please note that 'leveled' text may fail as a way to help you fit books with children as prior knowledge plays a big role in how well one reads. As such, we are never a single level.

I found that using book boxes in the younger grades helps students have on hand materials they can and want to read.  Where I have worked, young children brought in cereal boxes and these were cut down to form sleeves where each child kept a supply of reading materials. Both the child and the teacher added/removed materials to the boxes.  For digital readers, learning how to curate text for personal/professional use (i.e., google reader, instapaper, diigo, scoop-it, blog roll, homepage) can greatly assist.

The sure way to develop vocabulary is to develop a reading life.  As an educator or a parent, take a look at what is on your reading shelf.  How often are you reading? What are you reading?

from my bookshelf inside my kindle/ebook reader

from Reading/Oregon

from here.
2. Check the reading materials in your classroom/home and ask yourself: How many rare word opportunities are there for the children to learn? Rare words can be defined as words that would not likely be part of a child's vocabulary in a given grade range or as the frequency with which a word appears in written language. The less frequent words are considered rare as opposed to high frequency words.

Next ask: How many opportunities, given the reading materials students access, do they have to read and learn academic vocabulary? Academic vocabulary are those words which are particular to a discipline. Both rare words and academic vocabulary are important sources for vocabulary.
from Reading/Oregon
In an earlier post I wrote about collage journals based on newspapers as a vocabulary method.  Here's a link.  What types of text do students routinely have access to read during independent reading, shared reading, or hear during a read aloud? Read a sample of these texts and see if rare words and academic vocabulary are sufficiently present in the works.

from here
3.  Think about what you read aloud in classrooms or at home.  Again, thinking about rare words and academic vocabulary--how rich an experience are you providing? Increase the quality of text by ensuring that the works you have selected have sufficient rare words and academic vocabulary.  For younger children the main source of rare words will NOT be texts the children actually read on their own, but rather will be the texts that are read to them and the quality of speech they hear in engagements with adults, older children, and at times peers.  I like Isabel Beck's Text Talk as a way to manage the discussion of rare words (or what she calls Tier 2 words) during read aloud.  Here is a link to a one-page description of Text Talk. 

Dictionary feature inside an e-reader
4. What access to dictionaries and other resources to learners have? This is a good time to reconsider acceptable use policies and ensure that learners can use smartphones and other handheld devices in order to access text, dictionaries, and other on-line resources.  Also, the use of e-readers/iPads/iPod touches greatly enhances the ease with which one might define or search a term or seek additional information about a topic.  Electronic texts usually offer a linked dictionary and access to the Internet.  In addition to professional resources, learners also can benefit from keeping a personal dictionary of terms they are learning across disciplines.

In the next post, I'll discuss explicit ways to teach vocabulary.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). Dialogic imagination. Austin, TX; University of Texas/Kindle Edition.
Harmon, J. M., Hedrick, W. B., Soares, L., & Gress, M. (2007). Assessing vocabulary: Examining knowledge about words and about word learning. In J. R. Paratore & R. L. McCorack (Eds.), Classroom literacy assessment: Making sense of what students know and do (pp. 135-153). New York, NY: Guilford Press.


  1. I loved this post. We were just talking about how to improve vocabulary today. So this was very timely. Great ideas. I'll definitely share.

    1. Thanks Deb. Hope to post part 2 this week.

  2. I can't wait to read Part Two.

  3. Well I was pretty busy in May and didn't get to all your posts. But am teaching vocab in 2 weeks and will add. TX!

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