As a kid, I loved reading The Boxcar Children books. I read more than a hundred of them, captivated by the siblings’ independent adventures. One book was about the kids’ exploration of an island that they thought held buried treasure. I read the entire book, mis-reading island as is-land. (I didn’t know the s was silent!) I was too prideful to ask my parents what is-land meant, so though I read the entire book, I understood very little of it because I didn’t know the central vocabulary word of the text. A couple of months later, island was a vocabulary word in my class at school, and the book’s meaning struck me like a pile of bricks. I felt so stupid, and I reread the book, this time able to enjoy a much more complete understanding of the story. As our textbook suggests, understanding the vocabulary in a text is inextricably related to comprehension. If students don’t understand the words, which are the building blocks for texts, then they will not be able to gain a complete understanding of the text.
English teachers have had a challenging role in regards to vocabulary in the past. While content area classroom teachers have been responsible only for their students’ understanding of the technical terms associated with their content area, English teachers have been responsible for the rest of the words their students should know. Since there are a limited amount of English-class-specific words, the only real way to teach the huge, daunting category of ‘the rest of the words in the English language’ is to teach them in context. When I think back to the development of my own vocabulary, (which, by the way, never stops developing,) most of it came through reading. Elementary school teachers would have weekly vocabulary words, and though I would be able to match the words to the definitions for quizzes through trite mnemonic devices, I never actually learned the words. Perhaps I achieved a level 1 understanding of some of the words, but I never got up into the higher levels of understanding through this method of teaching vocabulary. It was in middle and high school, when the vocabulary quizzes stopped and contextual understanding of words was encouraged, that I began learning a lot more words. My middle school English teachers instructed me to stop if there was a word I didn’t understand in something I was reading, and either look it up or ask my parents what it meant. This was a novel thought to me, as the example of my mis-reading the word is-land shows.
Given my own experience, I will certainly teach vocabulary in context. I strongly believe that this is the only way that students can possibly reach higher levels of understanding of words, like understanding their subtle connotations. The way I’ve thought about approaching vocabulary is to discuss the words central to their understanding before reading. These words would be the “Critical ‘Before’ Words, or words that students must understand before they can begin to read a text and construct meaning from a text or passage” (Vacca, Vacca, Mraz 239). I particularly liked the strategy in the textbook of having students do a free-write about the word or concept, and feel that it would be a great way to deepen understanding of words. Then, as students read, I would have them note words that they don’t understand. They would have to pick out a couple words from a reading assignment and form a definition from the context of the text along with other resources. I would explicitly teach the vocabulary-building strategies detailed in the textbook, like using typographic clues and syntactic or semantic clues, so that they could reach a primary definition of words they don’t understand on their own. I would also explicitly teach them appropriate dictionary-use skills so they know how to use the tool to its capacity. They would then teach the word to their classmates, and we would discuss the word in further depth by using some of the other strategies in the textbook, like graphic organizers or word sorts. I think these strategies are great, but only when they are using words that are discovered and read in context. Teachers can help their students develop a rich vocabulary through reading and discussing words in their textual context. RCA2011