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Sight Words: Which to Teach and Which Not To

Sight Words

Which sight words should we teach?

Most teachers and reading specialists advocate some teaching of sight words: the question is which ones make sense to teach and which ones don’t make sense to teach? Don’t worry… At the end of the article you’ll get the assessments, word lists, activities, and suggested resources you need to teach. But, we do need to answer the question.

First, let’s dispel a few notions about how we learn to read. It’s not a which came first, the chicken or the egg? question some still suggest. In other words, the end result is not all that matters. Witness the plethora of reading intervention classes in upper elementary and middle schools to see how many of our students can “read,” but not understand what they are “word calling.” How we get to the end result does matter. Reading does not teach phonemic awareness, nor does reading teach phonics and multi-syllabic decoding.

We have plenty of reading research to positively assert that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is the most efficient approach to teaching beginning and remedial readers. The Look-Say Method of the Dick and Jane readers (sight words only instruction) and the Onset-Rime Method (b-ack, h-ack, j-ack, l-ack, p-ack, r-ack, s-ack, t-ack) have largely been placed on the dustbin of instructional approaches.

However…

We can certainly take things too far. We know some things, but we don’t know a lot of things about reading. We are only at the beginning stages of brain research.

So…

A prudent approach to both beginning and remedial reading instruction is to focus on decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling) instruction and practice, but to also “throw in” a healthy dose of sight words practice just to be sure. But, all sight words are not created equal.

Which Sight Words Not to Teach and Why

Don’t pass out lists of high frequency reading or spelling words for students to memorize. Intuitively, it would seem to make sense to have students memorize the words that they are going to read or spell most often. However, our gut-level instincts lead us astray here.

  • The Dolch and Fry word lists of the most commonly used words in basal readers were never designed to provide a list of words to study. Countless U.S. classrooms still, unfortunately, have these reading goals (and assign parents the task of teaching): 10 words by the end of kindergarten; 100 words by the end of first grade; 200 words by the end of second grade; and 300 words by the end of third grade. As a reading specialist, I’ve worked with hundreds of elementary, middle school, high school, and even community college students who can word call each of these lists, but not read with comprehension.
  • Similarly, the Slosson Oral Word Reading Test and San Diego Quick Assessment were only designed to test word recognition and they do provide correlations to reading comprehension, but authors Richard L. Slosson and Charles L. Nicholson, as well as Margaret La Pray and Ramon Ross respectively, never advocated using their random sample assessments as instructional tools.
  • The “No Excuse” spelling word lists, floating around since Rebecca Sitton popularized this band aid approach to spelling mastery during the height of the whole language movement of the 1980s and 1990s still, unfortunately, serves as the entire spelling program for countless U.S. classrooms with absolutely no research validating its instructional validity.

Which Sight Words to Teach and Why

The first group of sight words are, indeed, words; the second and third groups are word parts.

  • Outlaw Words: These words break the law, that is they break the rules of the alphabet code and are non-phonetic. Words such as the and above are Outlaw Words because readers can’t decode them. I’ve heard way too many teachers and parents force children into sounding out words which can’t be done because they break the code. It is true that many of our high frequency and high utility words happen to be non-decodable, but many are not, so the efficient approach to sight words instruction is to teach and have students practice only the non-decodable words, not the high frequency words which mix non-decodable and decodable. Why confuse students? We have to teach these outlaw words because they are exceptions to our phonics rules.
  • Word Families (Rimes): A rime is a vowel and the final consonants in one syllable, such as “ack.” The rime usually follows an first consonant, e.g. “b,” or consonant blend, e.g. “tr,” to form words, e.g., “back” or “track.” Students apply these to other starting consonants (called onsets) to recognize or say new words. By the end of second grade, students should know every one of these 79 word families with automaticity through explicit, systematic phonics instruction. If they don’t, gap fill with flashcard practice and activities to help students master the rimes. I have found plenty of success teaching the word families that students do not know with sound-spelling blending. Again, the focus is remedial, not instructional, with the rimes.
  • High Frequency Greek and Latin Prefixes and Roots: Greek and Latin word parts make up over 50% of the words in the dictionary. Some are decodable in English, and some are not. Because of the strong reading-vocabulary connection, it does make sense to have students teach and practice the Greek and Latin high frequency prefixes and suffixes which they do not know. Like with rimes, the analogous relationships formed by morphological (meaning-based) word parts make this a sound sight words instructional focus. For example,  bi means two in bicycle, just as it means two in bicameral or biped.

FREE Sight Words Assessments

Outlaw Words: Click HERE to get both the teacher and student assessment pages.

Word Families (Rimes): Click HERE to get both the teacher and student assessment pages.

Greek and Latin High Frequency Prefixes and Suffixes: Click HERE to get both the teacher and student assessment pages.

Click HERE to get a one-page Reading Assessment Matrix for these sight word assessments.

FREE Sight Words Lists and Activities

Outlaw Words: Click HERE to get this sight word list and sample instructional activities.

Word Families (Rimes): Click HERE to get this sight word list and sample instructional activities.

Greek and Latin High Frequency Prefixes and Suffixes: Click HERE to get this sight word list and sample instructional activities.

But wait… Why not get these sight word assessments, sight word lists, ALL (not the sample) sight word activities plus 10 other reading assessments AND all of the instructional resources to teach to these assessments?

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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How to Memorize Greek and Latin Word Parts

Teachers know that teaching the most common Greek and Latin prefixes, roots, and suffixes makes sense to help students build academic language. After all, about 50% of the words in any unabridged dictionary include at least one Greek or Latin affix or root.

The question is how can students most efficiently learn these word parts? Rote memorization has a role; however, tapping into the students’ transferable, long-term memories is more effective.

One way to connect to the long-term memory is through association. Associating multiple word parts helps students remember each word part better than through individual memorization. For example, auto means “self,” bio means “life,” graph means “write” and y means “the process or result of.” Learning the whole word, autobiography, is a great way to memorize by association.

Years ago I created a list of 15 Power Words with these types of associations for the most common Greek and Latin affixes and roots. The word parts associated in this list comprise word parts found in over 15,000 words. Well worth teaching your students, I would say.

Get the 15 Power Words FREE Resource:

My Grades 4−8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits pair prefixes, roots, and suffixes to maximize learning. Each grade-level curriculum includes some great interactive games.

For example, here’s a game that will help students practice their own Greek and Latin word part associations.

Have students create and spread out vocabulary word part cards into prefix, root, and suffix groups on their desks. Business card size works best. The object of the Put-Togethers game is to put together these word parts into real words within a given time period. Students can use connecting vowels. Students are awarded points as follows:

  • 1 point for each prefix—root combination
  • 1 point for each root—suffix combination
  • 2 points for a prefix—root combination that no one else in the group has
  • 2 points for a root—suffix combination that no one else in the group has
  • 3 points for each prefix—root—suffix combination
  • 5 points for a prefix—root—suffix combination that no one else has.

Another great game this time of year is Word Part Monsters. Teach numerical prefixes, some body part roots, and some descriptive suffixes and students use these to name and draw their own monsters. A pyrcapunipod comes to mind… translation? a fire-headed, one-footed monster! Students guess the translations of their classmates’ monsters.

The Grades 4−8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits are “slices” of the comprehensive  Grammar, Usage,

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

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.

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Why Vocabulary Word Lists Don’t Work

Most of us would agree with reading researchers that vocabulary development is critically important to improving reading comprehension (e.g., Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Baumann, Kame‘enui, & Ash, 2003). However, not all vocabulary instruction is effective or efficient.

The Weekly Vocabulary Word List

In many classrooms the predominant means of vocabulary instruction is weekly vocabulary word list. Pass it out on Monday; have students look up and write down definitions, make game cards, do a crossword puzzle, do a word sort, write context clue sentences, etc. Then test on Friday. The problem is that this approach does not work. It’s ineffective and inefficient.

It’s ineffective.

Students memorize the list for the Friday test and forget half of them by the next week. “Rote memorization of words and definitions is the least effective instructional method resulting in little long-term effect (Kameenui, Dixon, Carine 1987).”

It’s inefficient.

Even if students were to remember all of the, say 20 words, on the weekly vocabulary word list for the entire school year, they would only have mastered 600 words. But, the American lexicon is over 800,000 words. The SAT® word bank is over 30,000. 600 words won’t make a dent in those numbers.

According to reading research, students need to learn 3,000 new words per year just to make year-to-year grade level progress (Honig 1983). So learning only 600 words is a very small drop in a very big bucket. But it is a bucket we desperately need to fill-especially for educationally disadvantaged students, whose “word poverty” (Louisa C. Moats) dooms them to the “Matthew Effect” (Keith Stanovich) in which the poorer tend to get poorer.

To teach students 3,000 words a year, students would have to learn 17 words each school day (3,000 words over 178 school days). However, classroom intervention studies suggest that only 8 to 10 words can be retained through direct instruction in one week (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). That works out to about 300 words per year-hardly enough.

So, if vocabulary word lists are ineffective and inefficient. What does work to teach those 3,000 words per year?

Three Effective and Efficient Methods of Vocabulary Instruction

1. Independent Reading

Let’s use Luis as our example. Reading 30 minutes per day for homework at a rate of 200 words per minute, for a total of 132 days (4 days per week in a typical school year), means that Luis would be exposed to 792,000 words (30 x 200 x 132). If Luis reads text at the recommended 5% unknown words* level of word recognition recommended by reading researchers (Stahl, 1999), this means that he would be exposed to 39,600 unfamiliar words per year (792,000 x .05). Because students learn between 5 and 10 percent of previously unknown words in a single reading (Stahl, 1999), Luis will have learned between 1,980 and 3,960 new words at home! Not to mention reading in class.

*That 5% unknown words level is critically important. If students read texts below their current reading levels, even lots of reading won’t result in measurable vocabulary growth (Carver, 1994).

2. Greek and Latin Word Parts

Reading researchers suggest that learning Greek and Latin word parts is an effective and efficient method for acquiring vocabulary (e.g., Anglin, 1993; Biemiller & Slonim, 2001). Over 50% of all academic vocabulary contains one or more Greek or Latin prefix, root, or suffix. Unlike memorizing vocabulary word lists, memorizing word parts produces enormous pay-offs because one prefix, root, or suffix may be a component of hundreds of words. Learning these word families provides significant utility for the reader, especially those word parts with the highest utility.

Just 9 prefixes constitute 75% of words with prefixes (White, Sowell, & Yanigihara, 1989). Comprehensive frequency studies have not been completed on roots; however, there is general consensus as to utility of a few hundred roots. There is less agreement on the value of teaching suffixes. Suffixes can often have vague meanings such as “the state of”; suffixes are often merely inflectional forms; they also tend to vary spellings. However, some study of suffixes that have specific meanings is certainly warranted. Check out a great list of Greek and Latin word parts for instruction here.

3. Tier One, Two, and Three Words (Beck et al., 2002)

Some words do not need to be taught. Tier One Words are high utility words that will become part of a student’s lexicon incidentally through oral language or reading. Tier Two Words are common words used in cross-curricular academic discussions and reading. Tier Three Words are the specific-to-the-subject words that can sometimes be learned through effective application of context clues, but more often than not require vocabulary instruction in depth.

For example, examine this sentence: The happy child was fortunate to have such a sunny disposition.

Tier One Words: happy, child, sunny

Tier Two Word: fortunate

Tier Three Word: disposition

Check out the Academic Word List to see the most frequently used Tier Two Words for in-depth, non-list vocabulary instruction.

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 lessons. (Check out a seventh grade teacher teaching the direct instruction and practice components of these lessons on YouTube.) The complete lessons also 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.
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.

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

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

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.

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 non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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Twenty Advanced Syllable Rules

Syllable Rules

The 20 Syllable Rules

Teachers should take a look at the importance of direct instruction in syllabication. The syllable rules provide helpful guides to proper pronunciation, spelling, and reading. Check out How to Teach Syllabication once you’ve skimmed the following syllable rules. The Twenty Advanced Syllable Rules are critical to accurate pronunciation, decoding, and spelling. Knowing the patterns of affixes and roots will also facilitate vocabulary acquisition.

Syllable Rule #1: Every syllable has a vowel. The common vowels are a, e, i, o, and u.

Syllable Rule #2: When the vowel is not at the end of a syllable, it has a short sound. The Vowel-Consonant (VC) and Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) patterns are called closed syllables. For example, bas-ket is a CVC-CVC word with the short vowels ă and ě.

Syllable Rule #3: When the vowel is at the end of a syllable, it has a long sound. The Consonant-Vowel (CV) and Consonant-Consonant-Vowel (CCV) patterns are called open syllables. For example, be-low is a VC-VC word with the long vowels ā and ō.

Syllable Rule #4: Vowel digraphs are paired vowels that have only one vowel sound. Usually the first vowel indicates the sound of the vowel digraph. For example, in the word boat, the vowel digraph is “oa” and the sound is /ō/. Usually keep vowel digraphs in the same syllable.

Syllable Rule #5: Base words are roots that form complete words. A root is the meaning-based syllable that may or may not connect to prefixes or suffixes. Usually keep the original spelling of the base word when connecting to prefixes and suffixes. For example, kick in kicking.

Syllable Rule #6: Compound words consist of two or three base words (roots that form complete words). Usually keep the original spellings of the base words in compound words. The spelling rules do not change the spelling of the base words. For example, bridesmaid.

Syllable Rule #7: An incomplete root is the meaning-based syllable that connects to prefixes and/or suffixes. Unlike a base word, the incomplete root is not a complete word. Both ending vowels and consonants can change when connecting to other roots and suffixes. Sometimes a vowel or consonant is either added or dropped. For example, vis in visible.

Syllable Rule #8: Keep the silent final “e” and the vowel before in the same syllable. The silent final “e” makes the vowel before a long sound if there is only one consonant in between the vowel and the “e”. For example, basement.

Syllable Rule #9: Vowel diphthongs are paired vowels that have two vowel sounds. For example, “au” in sauces. Like vowel digraphs, they stay in the same syllable.

Syllable Rule #10: Prefixes are meaningful word parts attached to the beginnings of words. More than one prefix can begin a word. For example, mis and under in misunderstand.

Syllable Rule #11: Suffixes are word parts attached to the endings of words. They can add meaning to the word or indicate a part of speech. More than one suffix can end a word. For example, on and al in seasonal.

Syllable Rule #12: Consonant digraphs, such as sh, and consonant blends, such as str, stay in the same syllable. For example, shallow and straighten. The /sh/ consonant digraph frequently changes to another consonant sound between different grammatical forms of the same root. For example, /sh/ to /k/ in musician and magic.

Syllable Rule #13: Keep the r-controlled vowels (ar, er, ir, or, and ur) in the same syllable. For example, er-ror.

Syllable Rule #14: Divide syllables between doubled consonants, for example for-gét-ting, unless the doubled consonant is part of a syllable included in a base word, for example ful-fill-ment.

Syllable Rule #15: Some short vowel sounds change to the soft /uh/ schwa sound with a different grammatical form of the same word. For example, in cónduct and conductor the “o” changes from a short vowel to a schwa.

Syllable Rule #16: Some long vowel sounds change to the soft /uh/ schwa sound with a different grammatical form of the same word. For example, in repeat and repetition the “e” changes from a long vowel to a schwa.

Syllable Rule #17: Some long vowel sounds change to the short vowel sound with a different grammatical form of the same word. For example, in nation and national the “a” changes from a long vowel to a short vowel.

Syllable Rule #18: Some silent consonants are pronounced when connected to different grammatical forms of the same root. For example, numb and number.

Syllable Rule #19: Many Greek and Latin prefixes change their spellings to match the roots to which they attach in order to make pronunciation easier. For example, in and mobile becomes immobile. These “chameleons” can change either their consonant or vowel spellings. Check out How to Teach Greek and Latin Prefixes, Suffixes, and Roots.

Syllable Rule #20: Many Greek and Latin suffixes are morphemes, which means that the word part is meaningful. For example, viewable. Other suffixes serve as inflections, which means that the suffix helps change the part of speech, but does not add meaning to the word. For example, started.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

Syllabication is for all ages. Download these FREE instructional resources for your students:

Get the Syllable Awareness Assessment FREE Resource:

Get the Syllable Rules FREE Resource:

Get the Accent Rules FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Precise Vocabulary

Despite all of our educational focus these days on higher order critical thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Bloom, Costa, Depth of Knowledge, Any New Fads, etc.), the bulk of our teaching and learning at all levels of education remains at the lower levels of factual acquisition, comprehension, and application. Most educators would agree that our students do need this pool of knowledge to be able to accurately and efficiently inform our thinking and decision-making. This pool of knowledge consists of words. Knowing the precise meanings of these words is crucial to developing academic vocabulary to think, read, and write well. Words build upon words. These foundations hold up houses and skyscrapers.

Since independent reading remains the chief vehicle that we use to access words, educators would be wise to focus on this point of access. Learning precise vocabulary is, of course, one of the keys to reading. The point of this article is that it is the precision of vocabulary words are the lower level gatekeepers  that allow readers access to the higher level thinking, reading, and writing skills.

However, some may be thinking… How can we be sure of precision when even the dictionaries disagree? Merriam-Webster defines precision as “the degree of refinement with which an operation is performed or a measurement stated”. Oxford Dictionary defines precision as “The quality, condition, or fact of being exact and accurate“. 

Others may be thinking… Aren’t all words subject to individual interpretation? To some degree, yes. However, words do have a collective consciousness of meaning. They do connect to objective realities. In other words, words are not totally subjective. Words must be denotatively internalized and connotatively applied with a good deal of accuracy and skill to properly access information the way the author intends. Only when the reader understands the meaning of the author’s words can higher order thinking skills be then applied to the text.

Although that author-reader connection is a two-way street, the relationship should be weighted heavily on the side of the author. It is the author’s thoughts that we are trying to interpret, not ours per se. An author chooses words carefully because of their precise meanings and the connotations/feelings that the collective readers commonly will understand.

So, memorizing words with precise denotative and connotative definitions is important. Sloppy use of our language inhibits effective communication and leads to misunderstandings. So, what’s the bottom line here? What’s the application for teacher and learner? It is better to teach and learn fewer words with greater precision, than many words with less precision. Two vocabulary strategies assist in this effort: The Vocabulary Ladder and Semantic Spectrums.

The Vocabulary Ladder

Students draw a graphic representation of a ladder with five rungs. They take notes in between the rungs from each of the guiding prompts (in boldface). Begin with a clear, simple, and concise dictionary definition and work students up the ladder via class and teacher brainstorming and reference to appropriate text.

Example Vocabulary Word: democracy

Full Understanding

-It’s important because… it’s the foundation of our government.

-It’s different than… a republic because… a republic has a Constitution.

-It’s the same as… a republic because… both have citizens who are allowed to vote.

-Specific examples of it would be… direct democracy like a club, representative democracy like our Student Council.

-It’s an example of the following… ways decisions are made in governments and organizations.

-The definition is… rule by the people.

Basic Understanding

Semantic Spectrums

Students draw a number line with one end labeled Extreme and the other end labeled Opposite  Extreme. The object is to list words in their connotative order along the spectrum of meaning. Select two vocabulary words for this activity that students fully understand that are antonyms. For example, hot and cold. Have students brainstorm synonyms to each word at the ends of the spectrum and problem-solve via consensus as to where to list each new word by degree of meaning. Select one or two unknown vocabulary words that will fit along this spectrum and read a clear, simple, and concise dictionary definition of each. Assist the students’ decision-making as to where to place these new words. Have the students write down their definitions below the spectrum.

Example Vocabulary Words: even-tempered and vicious

<————————————————————————————————————————————->

Extreme kind-hearted/nice/warm/even-tempered/cool/mean/cruel/vicious/hateful Extreme

*****
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.

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 non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,