She and other experts say there are better ways for teachers to boost word understanding than by giving out weekly vocabulary lists and expecting students to memorize definitions.
“Students need to encounter words in different meaningful contexts and use these words in their own speech and writing in order to retain them,” said Camille Blachowicz, who co-directs the vocabulary instruction program and Reading Leadership Institute at National Louis University.
Classroom study of morphology — word parts like prefixes and suffixes — helps students figure out unknown words. But for students to become independent word-learners, they need broad exposure to the way words “work,” Blachowicz said.
Within any subject area, a teacher can help students conquer new words by having the class create a “flood” of words with meanings related to the new word.
“This is what word-aware parents do for lucky kids, and we need to do this for all students,” she said.
Some words can be quickly defined by a synonym or single example, she said — like “crown.” These can be quickly taught. Others, like “democracy” require focused instruction and time for students to absorb the word’s meaning through encountering it in more than one source and using it to describe personal experiences.
Blachowicz remembers going through this process to teach the word “nostalgia” to a group of fifth-graders. She could tell that one boy “owned” the new word when he said this:
“I feel such nostalgia for when I was a little kid, and rode my Big Wheel.”
The new Common Core state standards for education adopted by 46 U.S. states are intended to be more focused and stringent than the state standards they replace, and require complex reading skills. Meeting the standards will require word knowledge across a variety of subjects, Blachowicz said.
Students who read avidly boost their chances of doing well when tested on mastery of the standards, but most students don’t read enough, Clements said. So, Clements employs games and memory tricks to help students remember words that come up frequently in the readings found on standardized tests. She developed the Verbal Education video game as a study aid for students preparing to take the ACT or SAT.
Clements’ word-memory toolkit includes creating a visual image, rhyme or associative memory to go with a new word. To teach the word “egregious,” for example, she associates it with a word that starts the same way — “egg.”
“If you egg a house, that’s a bad thing to do — and that’s what egregious means,” she said.
At home and at school, Americans need to concentrate more on teaching verbal skills, and vocabulary comes first, Clements said. Her tips for parents include these:
Know how important vocabulary is
Play word games
Watch what your children are reading
Watch movies and television with your children and talk about unfamiliar words from the shows.
Given the data, perhaps another suggestion is pertinent — limit the amount of texting students do and encourage reading instead.
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @celiarbaker
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