Don’t read this article if you susceptible to thin-skin teacher disease. The typical vocabulary instruction in many classrooms includes passing out a “big words” list of 20 vocabulary terms on Monday and quizzing on this list on Friday. Starting to cringe? And now the “buts” start to formulate. Some of the “buts” will focus on the content of the list: “But half of those words are from the literature selections this week” or “But half of those words are SAT® words” or “But half of those words are grade-level words that my students should know.” Other “buts” will focus on the learning process: “But I make them write out each word ten times” or “But I make them create game cards for each word” or “But I have them underline the prefixes and suffixes and circle the roots.” The last “but” is all-too pervasive, if some of us are truly honest about why we really teach what and how we teach: “But that’s what and how I learned, and I turned out okay.”
The problem with the typical vocabulary instructional practice described above is not necessarily the content, nor the teaching approach. Indeed, the problem is one of effectiveness. According to research, “Rote memorization of words and definitions is the least effective instructional method resulting in little long-term effect (Kameenui, Dixon, Carine 1987).”
If students remember all 20 words, each week for the entire school year, they will have mastered 600 words. Now, realistically, if teachers got students to remember half of those words by the end of the year (think standardized test), most would be pleased. That leaves 300 words mastered per school year.
But, the American lexicon is over 800,000 words, and the SAT® word bank is over 30,000 words. Students need to learn 3,000 new words per year just to make one grade level progress (Honig 1983). Learning 300 words per year is a very small drop in a very big bucket. So, not only is rote word memorization ineffective, it is also inefficient.
Additionally, teaching vocabulary isolated from reading and spelling instruction ignores the structural components of words: phonics (decoding) and spelling (encoding), as well as the meaning-making purpose of words: understanding (comprehension) and communication (syntax, tone, clarity, etc).
At this point, frustration sets in… Even the most dedicated teachers might be thinking “Why teach vocabulary at all, then? Maybe students will just learn it on their own” or “I can’t spend any more time, teaching more words, than I already do. After all, I have reading skills, literary analysis, spelling, grammar, writing etc. to teach, as well” or “If I ignore it, it just might go away.”
For thick-skinned teachers who have made it to this point in the article, there is hope. Students can master the 3,000 new words this year that reading experts agree are necessary to achieve two-year-growth in reading levels. Your teaching can impact these levels of vocabulary acquisition. And you don’t have to spend much more class time to teach vocabulary efficiently. So what are the most efficient strategies? I call the two most efficient strategies to vocabulary acquisition 1. Efficient Reading and 2. Efficient Word Study.
Briefly defined, Efficient Reading involves re-orienting your homework assignments to focus on independent level reading with targeted context clues practice. The downsides? This approach requires some additional class time allocated to context clues instruction, additional record-keeping/accountability, and elimination of most other written homework assignments by default. The upsides? Increased vocabulary and comprehension, as well as a high likelihood of creating life-long readers.
Briefly defined, Efficient Word Study involves teaching the survive words: the academic language, literary terms, and those words essential to the understanding of literature selections and the thrive words: the morphological prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The downsides? You will have to spend a bit more class time teaching “deep-level” vocabulary techniques for the survive words. You will also have to spend a bit more class time on Greek and Latinates/word analysis for the thrive words. The upsides? Increased vocabulary and word recognition skills that complement context clue skills.
Here are FREE samples of vocabulary worksheets from this comprehensive program–ready to teach in your class today. Each resource includes directions, four grade-specific vocabulary worksheets, worksheet answers, vocabulary study cards, and a short unit test with answers.
The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.
Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.
The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).