Learn Vocabulary by Reading

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.

But half of those words on my list are from the literature selections this week.

But half of the words on my list are SAT®/ACT/academic language words.

But half of the words on my list 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.

But I make them create flashcards for each word.

But I use a crossword generator and have them do a crossword.

But I use a word jumble generator and have them do a word jumble.

But I have them underline the prefixes and suffixes and circle the roots.

Learning Vocabulary through Reading

Building Vocabulary through Reading

If some of us are truly honest about why we really teach what and how we teach, we might confess, “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 selection of the words, themselves, 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).”

Also, the problem of teaching vocabulary as described above is one of efficiency. Let’s do the math.

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, 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 reading 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.

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 (or more) this year that reading experts agree are necessary to achieve one-year-growth in reading levels. How? Through independent reading.

If students read challenging text (with about 5%) unknown Tier 2 words, 30 minutes per day, four days per week, they will be exposed to 30,000 new words during the school year. Assuming that students will master the meanings of about 10% of those words through context clues, they will meet the 3,000 new words goal. But, we can do better. By teaching students to use context clues more effectively, we can confidently up that level of contextual mastery during independent reading to 15 or 20%.

At this point, some some teachers might be tempted to follow former sixth grade teacher Donalyn Miller’s advice (The Book Whisperer) and allocate that 30 minutes of class time per day (or more) to independent reading. Perhaps vocabulary acquisition really is a natural process that is caught, not taught (Steven Krashen). Rather than teach, teachers should simply facilitate vocabulary acquisition by providing plenty of engaging books in their classrooms and time each day for sustained silent reading and rich literacy discussions.

Not so fast. I would encourage teachers not to give into that temptation. We still need to earn our paychecks. We can use homework for that independent reading time and save valuable class time for instruction. As a former principal of mine once said, “We’re not paying you the big teacher bucks to babysit students while they read.”

Common Core State Standards

Common Core State Standards

Non-contextual vocabulary instruction still has its place. We can use limited class time to teach non-contextual vocabulary, not through rote memorization, but through deep level practice. With non-contextual vocabulary, it does matter what you teach and how you teach it. We can build upon that annual 3,000 new words goal with the academic language students need to read even more challenging text.

To my mind, the best section of the Common Core State Standards is the Anchor Strand for Language. Following are the rigorous non-contextual vocabulary standards we should be teaching:

  • Multiple Meaning Words and Context Clues (L.4.a.)
  • Greek and Latin Word Parts (L.4.a.)
  • Language Resources (L.4.c.d.)
  • Figures of Speech (L.5.a.)
  • Word Relationships (L.5.b.)
  • Connotations (L.5.c.)
  • Academic Language Words (L.6.0)

How to deep level practice these vocabulary standards? Writing context clue sentences, Greek and Latin word part put-togethers, dictionary and thesaurus practice, semantic spectrums, four square vocabulary, and plenty more. Seeing how to teach these standards is much easier to understand than explaining.

Here are FREE samples of effective, non-contextual vocabulary 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.

Get the Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, 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, 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, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, 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 grades 4−high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics.

Literacy Centers, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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