Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Vocabulary Instruction: The Non-Amorphous Shape of Word Knowledge

The other day, my two teenage sons cajoled me into watching a movie they both find tremendously amusing.  The film is not new.  It's called Kangaroo Jack, and features Christopher Walken playing a small-time thug named Sal.  Although Sal is the head of a bumbling crime family, he feels very insecure about his word knowledge, and throughout the film he is seen making a desperate attempt at self-improvement through the use of a tape-recorded vocabulary tutorial.  In my favorite scene, a soothing female voice on Sal's tape player defines the word amorphous — having no shape or form, and then directs Sal to use the word in a sentence.  Sal responds with this beauty: "After Joey Clams got whacked, his head was amorphous."

Both of my sons thought my convulsive, guffawing response to this scene was a bit over the top, but I could not help but relate Sal's slightly off-the-mark use of language to the way traditional vocabulary instruction has also missed the mark for many of our students.  Teachers all know the drill.  Begin the week by introducing a rather extensive list of words.  Work all week on writing the definitions and using each word in an original sentence.  Test at the end of the week, and by Saturday morning, students have forgotten the meanings of most of the words on the list. 

Thoughtful teachers are just as frustrated by this process as are the students who are churning through word list after word list without gaining much traction in creating powerful vocabularies.  But joyfully, there better ways to help students develop strong vocabularies both through direct and indirect instruction.

Encourage Wide Reading.  The marriage between deep word knowledge and strong reading comprehension has long been celebrated.  Teachers know that students who have great vocabularies always seem to have their noses in books.  It is also obvious that, unlike Sal, those same students detect and understand the nuanced meanings embedded in all types of text.  This connection has been documented in several important educational studies.  It's a fact; wide reading is the surest way to develop strong vocabularies. 

Regardless of this important fact, another even more powerful fact remains: the majority of our students are not voracious readers.  So how can teachers motivate their reluctant readers to read more?  The number-one way teachers can encourage wide reading is to share with students their own passion for reading.  Many content area teachers are creating displays of books they've read, both for enjoyment and to inform them in their content area.  Spending five minutes of class time giving a book talk about a favorite book or article pays high dividends in increasing student interest in reading.  Flooding the classrooms with a variety of print material encourages students to have control over what they are reading.  That element of student choice is powerful in motivating independent reading.

Wide Reading Is Not Enough.  Of course building great vocabularies could not be that easy.  While time spent reading is critically important to vocabulary development, it does not solve the puzzle of helping students gain greater mastery of their language.  This reality makes the direct teaching of vocabulary a necessity.  Here are some avenues teachers can take to help their students gain greater command of word knowledge:

  • Teach Structural Analysis.  Teachers cannot hope to teach every word in the English language, and we cannot follow our students around for the rest of their lives directing them to "look it up."  We have to give our students the tools to decipher word meaning independently, and teaching structural analysis is a huge part of accomplishing that goal.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, about a third of the English language is derived from Latin and Greek word parts.  Learning the meanings of roots and affixes empowers students to encounter text independently and successfully because they know the meanings of huge chunks of words.  Visual Thesaurus provides a wonderful lesson plan called Rooting One's Way to Meaning, which combines a high tech resource, the word map, with a structured lesson to accomplish the goal of building strong vocabularies.  The Internet can deliver a plethora of Latin and Greek word lists to assist teachers in choosing word parts to teach.  When choosing roots and affixes to teach, use the Five Test.  This simply means that if you cannot think of at least five words that contain that word part, don't teach it.  It is a much better use of instructional time if we choose word parts that will quickly build larger, more powerful vocabularies. 

  • Let Students Generate Their Own Word Lists.  Teachers often try to anticipate which words students will not know by combing through a chapter and selecting a list of words.  An empowering technique is to give students sticky notes to use as they read.  Students generate their own word lists. These word lists are not only an eye-opening experience for the teacher, but they serve as a tool to differentiate instruction.  Visual Thesaurus has a growing list of personalized word lists developed around themes or just by words their creators love.  These lists can serve as inspiration for student-made word lists and lead students to a life-long passion for words. 

  • Create Interactive Notebooks. Have students create interactive notebooks where they record "kid-friendly" definitions that will grow as students deepen their understanding of the various meanings and usages of the words they are learning.  The notebook houses student-drawn graphic organizers (a green concept that saves schools plenty of dough on paper and printing expenses) and graphic representations (pictures), and stores running examples of where and how they've seen their words used.   Using the VT word map, students can create word splashes and complete graphic organizers to add to their vocabulary notebooks.  The interactive notebook should be an integral part of every teacher's literacy practices.

  • Engage In Wordplay.  There are many ways to play with words, but the bottom line is that students learn to love language.  I consider etymology to be a form of wordplay.  Learning the origins of words and phrases is fun and creates a wealth of background knowledge students can use in various content areas.  Web pages like Words of a Feather and The Word Detective are great sources for discovering the history of words and the meanings of idioms.  Visual Thesaurus has its own etymology destination called Word Routes, which provides a spirited examination of some of the most entertaining words and phrases in the English language. From SCRABBLE® to Analogies to "found poetry" to home-made word games, wordplay takes many forms and should be an important aspect of vocabulary instruction.  The net effect of adding these activities to your classroom practices is your students become motivated and active learners in acquiring greater word knowledge.

  • "Teach the Hard Words."  Vocabulary guru Isabel Beck directs us to teach the hard words.  According to Beck, these "Tier 2" words are the challenging words students need to know to enhance their reading, writing, speaking, and thinking.  Words like ambivalent, miser, scintillating, and serendipity are all examples of Tier 2 words.  Beck knows instructional time is precious, and we must use it as wisely as possible. 

  • Teach Content-Specific Words.  Often, content-specific words are "Tier 3," or technical words.  These are words like iambic pentameter, which are critical to the understanding of specific curriculum.  These words require direct instruction.  Giving definitions and finding examples and non-examples will help students grasp the full meaning of content-specific language.  Teachers can create vocabulary guides to accompany content text or use semantic feature analysis tools as a pre-assessment of their students' various levels of understanding of content-specific language.  But not all content-specific words are Tier 3 words.  Many of these words are Tier 2 words that carry multiple meanings.  Consider the following words: revolution and meter. Does revolution have the same meaning in science as it does in social studies?  Is a meter in poetry the same as a meter in math class?  How are your students supposed to know the nuanced meanings of these words?  That's easy.  These are the kinds of words you will teach.

  • Stay Current with the Best Strategies in Teaching:  If names like Beck, Allen, Fisher, Nagy, Frey, and Bromley seem unfamiliar to you, it's time to refresh your knowledge of literacy education.  I recommend three books to begin: Bringing Words to Life by Isabelle Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kukan; Word Wise and Content Rich by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey; and Inside Words by Janet Allen.  The information contained in these books will deepen your own understanding of vocabulary instruction and help you build the instructional skills needed to ensure your students develop rich storehouses of word knowledge.

If Sal had benefited from sound vocabulary instruction, his character would have been far different, but certainly not as funny.  I suppose in the context of Sal's world, someone who gets whacked really has a shapeless head, but the word amorphous will never be the same for me.  Watching Sal struggle to beef up his vocabulary helped crystallize my understanding of the need to help students take real ownership of words. As a literacy educator, I plan to spend my summer learning more about sound instruction and taking a few breaks to spend time with my sons.  Hopefully, they will guide me to new inspirations that are as delightful as the word-challenged Sal. 

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Debbie Shults is a veteran Sarasota, Florida, teacher, literacy coach and now blogger who is working to define a "new literacy" at her middle school. Click here to read more articles by Debbie Shults.

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Rooting One's Way to Meaning
A lesson plans to help students break words down to their classical roots.