Layer 1: Vocabulary

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




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5 responses to “Layer 1: Vocabulary

  1. By your choice of reading, I assume you are much younger than me, since my son loved those books too (Boxcar Children). In saying that I think that you have hit on an old subject. The Dictionary. We hardly use it anymore since we are one click away from everything. Kids nowadays do not even know how to navigate through them. What a gift you would give your students by teaching them these useful skills. Good Job

  2. Hannah,

    Your story about missing the key vocabulary word reminds me of a similar incident I experienced during elementary school (near the beginning of the whole language era when vocabulary was rarely explicitly taught). Both of our experiences greatly affected our comprehension (or lack thereof) of the text. To your credit, the fact that you went back to re-read after that moment of enlightenment is great. This really emphasizes the need for teachers to explicitly teach vocabulary terms during pre-reading exercises, in addition to teaching students skills for determining meaning in context. I am also a strong advocate of teaching vocabulary in context–across the curriculum–not just in English class:) I further agree with you that the strategies are great but must be used in authentic contexts; this also ensures that students are not just learning words in isolation, and they will increase their capacity to recall and use those terms accurately in a variety of contexts. I enjoyed the way you related concepts from the readings to your personal learning experiences.


  3. I definitely can relate to you when you said that you read the entire Boxcar book without knowing the meaning of the word island. There have been many times I have read something and didn’t know the meaning of a word so I didn’t understand the text. Even as an adult I am very reluctant to look up words in the dictionary. Sometimes I feel like that takes too much time, especially if I am in a rush. So I read on thinking I can gain the meaning by looking at the context clues. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t work to well when the word in written all throughout the text. As an elementary school teacher when my students are reading unknown words in a text I like to ask them what would make sense in the sentence. I remind them to look at the beginning sounds in the word and re-read the sentence with the word they think belongs to check to see if it makes sense. I know this would look a lot different for high school students. Many high school students would be too ashamed to say they don’t know how to read a word.

  4. I really enjoyed reading about your misconception about island. Since this was such a clear example, it’s great that you can connect with students. I also like the resounding theme of teaching vocabulary in context. Often times, I find myself fall victim to teaching vocabulary out of context without realizing really how important it is. I also really liked how you are planning on incorporating the different strategies so that students take ownership of the words rather than just learning them Friday and forgetting by Monday. This was a joy to read.

  5. Cris

    You make a good argument, Hannah, that English teachers carry the weight of vocabulary instruction. And I didn’t see anyone disagreeing with you.

    So it only makes sense that English teachers should approach vocabulary instruction as you suggest — a collaborative, participatory, constructivist approach based on authentic uses of words in context. In this way, you’re focused on helping your students become independent learners who can use context strategies, and, if all else fails, dictionary skills.

    Thanks for sharing your ISland story. We forget sometimes how treacherous the English language can be.

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