Teaching Vocab More Effectively

6 Sep

My pre-K – 12 school’s ELA/English departments are up for curriculum review this year, which means we’ll get to revise, add to, and better align the ELA curriculum for our school.

During our first meeting yesterday, we were discussing the goal of teaching vocabulary, particularly at the high-school level. A colleague questioned what our goal was in the teaching and quizzing of lists of words (e.g. Is it to boost SAT scores? Is it to write with a better and more varied vocabulary? Is it to improve reading comprehension? Is it something else we haven’t considered?) I’d never pondered the question so thoughtfully before, but something my colleague said especially clicked: “My ELL students have no idea what ‘wordy’ means, but they memorize ‘loquacious,’ because it’s on our vocab list and then they try to use it in a paper because they think it’s a big, good word and so I’ll be impressed with them, when really I’d like them to just know what ‘wordy’ is.”

I mulled it over last night, because it’s true. We teach a very high ELL population here at our school, and even our very fluent speakers are often second-language English learners. So what is our goal with the vocabulary teaching? If I’m honest, I’d say that we have probably been attempting a net strategy with the vocabulary — several kids, like English language learners and learning disabled students, will slip through the holes in the net and score consistently poorly on understanding and usage of high-level vocabulary. But we catch a majority of students in the vocabulary net; they memorize definitions and begin to incorporate the vocabulary into their writing and sometimes (though far less often) speech.

But is that net really good enough?

I have to admit it’s not very “backwards-design-minded” or effective at producing mastery.

So I began to think about how it might be remedied and I suddenly realized the answer was quite simple — differentiated vocab lists. Teachers or departments could draw up vocabulary lists that offer different sets of words for different student levels. For example, List 1 would include easier, more basic words for native English speakers but appropriate for ELL students (words like “wordy,” “sneaky,” and “burden”); List 2 would include high-level synonyms for those List 1 words (“verbose,” “surreptitious,” and “onus”); and, if desired, a List 3 might be made up of morphemes so that students who have mastered definitions and usage could begin to work on decoding words they don’t know or have never seen before (exonerate = ex (out of) + onerare (unburden)).

It would take some conscious work across teams to do this comprehensively, but I think if students could work at their own pace, mastering lists as they go, the effects could be very positive. Once a student has mastered List 1, he/she can move on to List 2, etc. Students could even make year-long goals related to vocab study: “My goal is to master Grade 9 List 1 this year and begin List 2.”

Anyone out there do something like this already? Would love to hear more on this idea.

Two final thoughts on vocabulary teaching:

1. A great resource for memorizing lists of vocabulary, literary terms, or morphemes for any teacher is quizlet.com. A colleague tipped me off to it and it’s fabulous (and free). Teachers can create lists of vocabulary and students can view them, use the flash-card quiz feature, self-test, play games against themselves or each other with the words, and print the word lists in neat format. My students are loving it this year, and we all benefit from its ease and time-saving format. And for ELA teachers who want to draw vocabulary from the reading they are doing, there are pre-made lists for many books already available on the site; all the teacher needs to do is add the list to her class and she is done.

2. In my Harkness work this year, I have added a new requirement to the rubric: students must use one new vocab word and one new literary term in every discussion in order to get a top grade. My goal is that this will inspire more thinking about and usage of our vocabulary. So far, so good; students are consulting their vocab lists more and using them during discussion consciously, even if they laugh every time someone says something like, “He is quite an ‘indolent’ protagonist.”

My last thought on vocab teaching is an admission: I have not been a very effective teacher of vocabulary in the decade I’ve been teaching, and now I’m trying to experiment with ways to remedy that. Suggestions welcome.



3 Responses to “Teaching Vocab More Effectively”

  1. Frank McGowan September 6, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    I teach in a 1-12 school with a high ELL population and we are also attempting to focus more on vocabulary instruction. Our first stop is what we term “process words” that we gleaned from our standards. These are the words that students need to know to successfully work on a project/task/etc across content areas. Students may understand content specific words but then stumble because they have no idea what “analyze” requires. I was just wondering if you’ve had any discussion/thoughts along this avenue of vocabulary.

    • alexisswiggins September 6, 2012 at 2:26 am #

      Hi Frank,

      I think this is a very important part of vocab instruction, and comes back to the question: Why are we actually teaching it? Sounds really interesting what your school is doing. Would love to hear follow-up.

      If you don’t already have one, pick up a copy of Marzano and Pickering’s Building Academic Vocabulary: A Teacher’s Manual which deals with exactly this type of vocab learning you’re talking about, and it has sections and word lists for all disciplines in K-12 (even PE), with varying levels of complexity, scaled 1 – 4. You have word lists that students should know in ELA, general history, U.S. history, economics, PE, etc. Words like “predict,” “entropy,” “correlation,” and “import” are on there. It’s not an exhaustive list (“analyze” isn’t on the ELA list, for example), but it’s a great start. Some good suggestions for usage and practice in the classroom and graphic organizers are in there as well.

  2. Karen Libby September 14, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    My kids are at a Montessori school, where differentiated vocabulary lists are used just as you suggested. Each kid receives a level-appropriate list and must master it to move on to a more sophisticated list. They work at their own unique paces. It really works. I’ve been trying to transfer more of these great ideas from Montessori (which is essentially a system designed for elementary students) to my high school English classroom. It can be difficult, but the results are great. The individualized approach really makes the students feel respected and vested in the process.

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