Friday, August 8, 2014

Literacy Lessons from Teachers College - Part II Vocabulary

I recently attended an exciting two-day conference on literacy in the elementary and middle grades hosted by faculty from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Through lectures, readings, discussions, and collaborative group work I learned a great deal about the implications of current research on literacy assessment and instruction. I look forward to sharing what I learned about phonics, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing with readers of the Yellin Center’s blog!

Vocabulary knowledge can help, or hinder, reading comprehension enormously. Unfortunately, much of the vocabulary instruction students receive is not supported by research. Too many students receive a list of vocabulary words each week with the assignment to look up their definitions and use them in sentences. The words often have no relationship to each other or to content the students are studying in their classes. Effective vocabulary instruction is tied closely to the reading and writing students do in other subjects. And, like most high-quality teaching methods, sound vocabulary instructional practices show students how to understand words on their own, sometimes without even the aid of a dictionary!

Five Myths about Vocabulary

1) Learning definitions is sufficient.

In fact, students must have the chance to both see and use words in multiple contexts.

2) Weekly vocabulary lists are an effective way to learn new words.

Higher-quality learning is achieved when words are connected to each other and to curricular content.

3) Teachers should teach all unknown words, especially words written in bold/italic font.

This would result in unrealistically long lists of words that students couldn’t learn deeply. Instead, teachers should mindfully select key words for study.

4) Learning Latin and Greek roots is too difficult for young children.

Children are ready to learn roots in primary school.

5) Word learning can’t be fun.

Most students love word play!

What Works

First, teachers must know that there are multiple levels of “knowing” a word. One can know it phonologically (i.e. correct pronunciation), orthographically (i.e. correct spelling), semantically (knowledge of correct definition), and/or syntactically (i.e. can use it correctly). Students don’t need to know all this terminology, but understanding that there are different ways to know a word can help them to determine which words they need to study more closely. Teachers should encourage kids to put words into categories. Here is one such scale:
  • Level One - Can define and use in a sentence 
  • Level Two - Understand in context but not in isolation
  • Level Three - Know the vague gist of (for example, knowing that “persecute” has a negative connotation but not knowing why)
  • Level Four - Have never heard the word before
Research indicates that when teaching new vocabulary, instructors should aim to provide students with both depth and breadth in terms of vocabulary knowledge. Students should know enough words to make sense of what they read, but they should also learn selected words deeply. How can one know a word deeply? By being familiar with the nuances of its meaning, understanding which words and concepts are analogous and opposites, and understanding what parts of the word (affixes, roots, etc.) give it its meaning.

To learn a word well, students must have multiple exposures to the word in the context of meaningful sentences. Additionally, students come to “own” a word only after they have had chances to use it in writing and conversation. Games provide excellent opportunities for students to use new words.

Watch for upcoming posts about reading comprehension and writing!

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