Read About Best Practices in Vocabulary Instruction
This module explores vocabulary instruction and its benefits. Various aspects of vocabulary instruction will be covered, including practices, assessment, and the difference between direct and indirect instruction. Teachers will be offered sample vocabulary lessons and will learn what researchers have to say about this topic.
Vocabulary instruction can be either direct or indirect. This module will focus on direct instruction. Direct vocabulary instruction occurs when a teacher systematically demonstrates how to determine the meanings of words by utilizing contextual and conceptual clues. Although students learn the words in the context of authentic reading, the teacher leads them to specific strategies for discovering meaning.
Indirect vocabulary instruction involves exposing students to a wide variety of literary sources. In her book Words, Words, Words, Janet Allen writes, They used the words they heard on television and radio; they used words from the music they listened to; and they used the words I used with them. Vocabulary growth occurs naturally when students read, write, talk, and listen to each other on a daily basis. When in a rich literary environment, such as a classroom, students internalize the language used in meaningful contexts.
Baumann and Kame'enui (1991) sum up their findings of vocabulary research over the past twenty years: We know too much to say we know too little, and we know too little to say that we know enough. However, the research to date does provide some clear insight into vocabulary instruction. McKeown and Beck (1988) found that word knowledge is not an all or nothing proposition. Words may be known at different levels. This suggests that teachers should not try to find one surefire way to teach vocabulary, but should instead utilize many methods of direct instruction.
The amount and type of instruction a student is given directly correlates to his level of word knowledge, as noted by Beck, McCaslin, and McKeown (1980) and Kame'enui et al. (1982). The chart indicates that different levels of knowledge require different types of direct instruction. First-grade students know money and dog. Teachers expect them to be able to use those words in a variety of different contexts. They may or may not have background information about currency and kennel, however. Those words require more direct instruction built on what students know about money and dogs. Finally, monetary and canine require extensive direct instruction using various activities, including graphic organizers and word origin exercises.
In Words, Words, Words (1999), Janet Allen offers questions that teachers might ask themselves to help drive instruction for different types of word knowledge. The answers to these questions help teachers determine which words require pre-teaching and prior knowledge, which can be taught on the spot, and which can be defined from the text. Allen's sample questions are as follows:
Research indicates that direct vocabulary instruction is necessary to ensure that students grow as readers and thinkers in both fiction and content-area literacy. Direct vocabulary instruction nurtures understanding of new concepts, enhances the craft of writing, develops a deeper understanding of the words and concepts students are partially aware of, increases reading comprehension, and improves communication skills (Janet Allen 1999).
Instructional practices focus on contextual and conceptual strategies. Contextual information strategies use clues imbedded in the text to determine the meaning of unknown words. Concept-based strategies utilize the way words are created and the concepts behind them as links to their meanings. Although both strategies are important, a few basic findings regarding contextual clues are noted below (Baumann and Kame'enui 1991):
The three points above suggest that while context clues help students with basic information about words, teachers must directly teach the meanings of vocabulary words utilizing specific types of clues. These clues are described below. Note that the dictionary should be the last tool students use to determine the meaning of an unknown word.
Contextual Information Strategies: Clues located around the word assist with meaning.
Concept-Based Strategies: Known words or concepts scaffold unknown words or concepts.
Clue words, such as is called, are called, this means, and which means, indicate direct definitions. Typographical clues include commas, parentheses, and dashes. Consider the following examples:
A synonym is often indicated by the clue words a and or. For example, consider the following sentence: The deer was very frail, or weak.
Meanings are also revealed through embedded clues. For example:
The deer was very frail. He could not raise his head, and his eyes were half-closed. Without food and water, he would die.
Contrast clue words include instead, but, on the other hand, however, though, yet, and not. For example: The deer was frail. However, he chewed on tree bark to try to regain his strength. This made him feel better, but he was not yet fully revived.
Cause and Effect
Clue words for cause and effect include because, so, since, therefore, then, consequently, if, and as a result. For example: Because the deer had been shot, he was bleeding and had run a great distance. As a result, the animal would soon die.
Sequence clue words include while, when, during, as, meanwhile, now, then, next, after, finally, before, soon, at last, and first. For example: While the forest was burning, the animals searched for shelter. During their flight to the other side of the forest, a young deer broke his leg trying to jump a small creek. Finally, the frail deer dragged himself through the water to safety.
Mood and Tone
The author's language evokes feelings that give clues to the meanings of words. For example: The woods were silent except for the chirping of birds. The old, frail deer lay helpless on the mossy ground, knowing his time had come. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and died.
With analogies, students have to do more than simply determine definitionsthey also have to find the relationship between words. This challenge adds a higher level of thinking to the vocabulary process. Relationships between words include:
Categorizing requires students to see what words have in common and how they fit together. Use the following activity, called List-Group-Label (Taba, 1967), before reading a book or beginning a new unit of study in social studies, science, or math.
While studying safety, for example, have pairs or small groups of students generate lists of words pertaining to safety. After the lists are complete, ask students to group the words into categories and label each group with a title, such as At Home and First Aid.
Graphic organizers help readers deconstruct and synthesize information. Below are step-by-step instructions for leading two graphic organizer activities. The first activity uses the Pedestal Word graphic organizer; the second uses the Concept Map graphic organizer.
For example, the Pedestal Word Graphic Organizer below utilizes a text about ants.
For example, after studying electricity, complete a concept circle on the topic by writing Electricity at the top of the page and filling in the four sections with words or phrases that describe electricity. For an extra challenge, instruct students to include vocabulary words studied in the unit.
Definition Word Maps (Schwartz, 1988): Model this activity during small-group instruction. It can then be completed before, during, or after reading.
Explain that words can be connected to each other in many different ways. Two ways are degree and order.
Write the words mumble, shout, scream, whisper, and proclaim on chart paper or the chalkboard and pronounce them. Use the following think-aloud to model how to arrange these words by degree.
Say: I see that these words are all different ways of talking. I'll put them in order, starting with the quietest way to talk and ending with the loudest. I think it is most quiet to whisper, so I'll list it first. Next, I'll write mumble. I know that when I mumble, I speak at a normal level but I'm hard to hear and understand. I'm not sure what proclaim means, but I think it may be like making an announcement. I'll put it next and check my work when I'm done. My last two words are shout and scream. Now let me look at what I've written. I've put the words in the following order: whisper, mumble, proclaim, shout, scream. Yes, those are degrees of talking sounds. There is not much difference between whisper and mumble, but there is a lot of difference between whisper and scream. Now, let's use a dictionary to check the meaning of proclaim to see if I've put it in the right place.
(Check the meaning of proclaim.)
Say: I could put these words in a different format to help me better understand the degree of sound. I'm going to draw a linear array and use it to place the words in order.
Model another example of a linear array that students can complete in small groups. Do the following: