I clearly remember the first time I sought out the meaning of a word. I was reading Arundhati Roy’s novel, “The God of Small Things” and was so involved in the world she described that I couldn’t bear to not savor every detail of it.

Usually when reading, if I come across a word I don’t know, I continue to read relying on context clues to help me figure out the meaning. If that doesn’t work, I keep reading calculating that one word is not important enough to stop my reading.

But this time, I stopped, grabbed a dictionary, and looked up the word “viscous.” I read the definition several times before returning to the novel, rereading the sentence with the word in it, making sure the sentence made sense now that I knew the meaning of the word. Then I took a deep breath and restarted reading at the beginning of the paragraph, dropping back into the story, savoring every detail… “Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying flowers” (119).

This is the best way to expand one’s vocabulary, in the context of being thoroughly engaged with a subject where the word is found. So why don’t teachers, tutors, or writing curricula use this method? Many try but end up creating an inauthentic form for a process that should grow authentically from a learner’s engagement.

So should you teach vocabulary?

A large vocabulary is a predictor of reading success http://www.breakthroughtoliteracy.com/index.html?SID&page=df_sc_reading_s, of an increased ability to articulate experience and therefore of higher level critical thinking skills  , and of later occupational success http://litemind.com/top-3-reasons-to-improve-your-vocabulary/. Hence, hoping for a learner to be motivated to search for the meaning of words may not be enough.

When undertaking the systematic study of vocabulary, there are two elements of a curriculum that need to be considered.

1. Is the vocabulary list thoughtful?

2. Are the exercises generative?

Vocabulary List

Many curricula present vocabulary lists as “grade level” but this is a random list of words which researchers have determined children should know by a certain grade level. This is not authentic learning and tends to be rote memorization of words. You may find that your child or student already knows most of the list and therefore this is not time well spent. If time is to be spent on rote memorization or “drill and kill” then it is important that the list be worth the effort.

Choosing vocabulary that are “academic” or “tier 2” guarantees that the study of vocabulary is well spent. Academic vocabulary are those words which are found in many academic subjects. Words such as “classify” or “monitor” are used in a variety of academic subjects and will be pertinent for a learner to know for all subjects http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CE4QFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.sci.csueastbay.edu%2Febsp%2Fliftoff%2Fsummer2010%2Fmaterials%2FDay%25206%2F6.3%2520Academic%2520Vocab%2520Tier%25201-3%2520for%2520NASA%2520Lift%2520Off.ppt&ei=Bt4VUP-pNInHrQHK-4DgBg&usg=AFQjCNEZUA_bNGXiHCRyi2OWAaCBa31vLA&sig2=7aIj58nskPa_of7JsY-3pw. There are many great curricula with tier 2 vocabulary exercises in them to help with the teaching of vocabulary. A quick search will turn up many options.

Generative Exercises

When choosing a curricula for vocabulary, be sure that the exercises are generative rather than associative.

Associative exercises are those drill and kill exercises most workbooks are filled with. These require learners to associate the word with the clues given either in the form of definitions, synonyms, antonyms or sentences with a blank to be filled.

Generative exercises require students to generate meaning using the word. Having learners write their own sentence using the word is the most well-known exercise. Others include students answering open-ended questions with the vocabulary word embedded in the question, assuring that the student understands the context of the vocabulary and can generate correct answers given the question. For example, questions such as “What is the best method for parents to monitor a teenager’s social activities?” allows the learner to express an opinion, hopefully increasing engagement, and a clear answer ensures the learner understands the vocabulary.

Best

When I am tutoring a child who is reading challenging literature, my favorite method of teaching vocabulary combines all of the above. I skim the pages to be read for the week and search for words that are tier 2. I ask students to explain the meaning of the word. If they are able to, I keep skimming. If they are not able to, I write it down on a worksheet and ask them to copy the sentence from the book where the word is used (identifying the word in context), copy the definition that fits the sentence onto the worksheet (familiarizing self with the definition), then write their own sentence using the word (generative exercise). When we meet again in a week, I check the worksheet and review the word orally, asking an open-ended question using the word to ensure the student knows the word. The worksheet I created for this is below.

Teaching vocabulary as part of a writing curriculum is important because as writers, the larger our vocabulary the better able we are to articulate the thoughts we have, the clearer our writing will be, and the more concise our meaning will be. Thoughtful attention to how to teach vocabulary as part of a writing curriculum will ensure that learners are engaged and progressing.

Name ___________________

Words From My Readings

Each week you are to keep a list of words you have read but don’t know the meaning of. Write the word down, copy the sentence the word is from in your readings, look the word up in the dictionary, and copy the definition, including the part of speech.

  1. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

2. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  1. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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