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Vocabulary Information

Did you know that a reader must understand at least 95% of the words in a text to comprehend it?

Four Broad Researched-based Practices For Building Vocabulary 

It is best to use all four practices and not rely on any one of them. Most can be incorporated into our teaching week if we know how.

1.  Encourage Wide Reading – This can be independent reading, teacher/parent read-alouds,  buddy reading, reading environmental print (signs, menus, recipes, food boxes, etc).  The more they read, the better.

2.  Encourage Word Play and Exploration – This is doing what we can to show our interest in words and encourage students to play with words and find new words on their own.  Children love to make and add to lists.  Why not display lists of:

  • homophones,
  • synonyms,
  • antonyms,
  • interesting words,
  • categories of words

Be sure these lists are prominently displayed so that students can use them in writing and confirm meaning when reading.  Remember, the lists must be student centered.  They make the lists.  For other word wall ideas see Word Walls below.

3.  Build Strategies for Independent Learning

  • word analysis -  If someone knows the common prefixes, suffixes, and roots, they increase their vocabulary by thousands of words.  Why teach hundreds of individual words when we could teach their interchangeable parts! For a systematic study of the most frequently used prefixes, suffixes and roots, see the book Word Analysis - Unlocking the Meaning of Words                                             
  • using context clues – This must be taught so students are aware of their ability to do it.... like magic. 
  • using resources - like the dictionary, thesaurus, and other resources.
4.  Explicit teaching  - use the S.T.A.R. sequence
  • Select – Choose some Tier 1 and some Tier 2 words.
  • Teach – Show the new word in pictures or give “kid friendly” definitions.
  • Activate – They must see, hear, and use the word. Drawing is great for this.
  • Revisit – New information needs to be manipulated in many different ways. The more times you use the new words in different contexts, the better. Students must be exposed to the new words multiple times. Spaced review is an extremely effective way of being sure students retain new information. One way to do this is for students to build their own vocabulary book, The Student Book of Knowledge, in a blank sketch or composition book, throughout the year.

Having students build their own vocabulary books addresses the activate and revisit part of S.T.A.R.  Give each of your students a blank composition book and title it "My Own Book of Knowledge." Students activate their new knowledge by making entries in their blank composition book by drawing and labeling.  Then, since their information is housed in a bound book, revisiting is easy.  Every few weeks, go back and do something with previous entries (compare/contrast, alphabetize labels, draw each part, singular – plural, play BINGO, use labels in spelling sentences, categorize labels, buddy learning, open-book assignments, etc).  Both activate and revisit can be done in a literacy center (taking no teaching time). For literacy center ideas, drawings without labels, and activity forms see Vocabulary Centers and Partner Learning: Practical Ideas, Forms, and Pictures.

The New Book of Knowledge teacher resource book gives information for: activating and revisiting new vocabulary, word analysis lists, books to read aloud for each object, ideas for using their "My Own Book of Knowledge"entries to improve writing (using specific nouns, elaboration, and common expressions), and suggestions for continuums (semantic gradients).

All words can be put in one of three categories, or tiers.

Tier 1 words are basic words that are commonly used in spoken language and appear in books and assessments at the elementary level. Many people think that these words do not need to be explicitly taught.  They suggest this because they assume that these words are heard frequently in the home through conversation.  BUT we know better.  We know that these words are NOT heard frequently, because there is a serious lack of conversation in our students’ homes.  I am shocked at how many “Tier 1” words our students don’t know (Ex: ladder, stump, etc).  Yet, these are the words readers need so that they can visualize and make inferences as they read (essential for reading comprehension).  If children are not learning these words incidentally, then they must be taught explicitly.  When deciding which Tier 1 words to teach, see The New Book of Knowledge, Family Learning Time, and The Illustrated Dictionary of Everyday Things.

Tier 2 words are not considered to be “common” words. Knowledge and use of these words indicates a mature command of language. Young children encounter them less frequently as listeners. As a result, these words are unknown to many of our learners when seen in print.  Tier 2 words are more precise or complex forms of familiar words.  They are vivid verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and specific nouns.  When students use these words in their writing pieces, their scores improve because it makes their writing more interesting.

In deciding which Tier 2 words to teach, consider the following:

  1. Will it be of use to students in describing their own experiences?
  2. Is it likely to appear in a variety of texts?
  3. Is it a word that is characteristic of mature language users?

The New Book of Knowledge, Family Learning Time, and The Illustrated Dictionary of Everyday Things is filled with specific nouns that would be considered Tier 2 words that will improve both reading and writing.

Tier 3 words appear rarely in general vocabulary usage. These words tend to be limited to specific subject areas (medical terms, legal terms, biology terms, etc). Tier 3 words are central to building knowledge in the content areas.

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Word Walls To Build Vocabulary

Word Walls

We have all had word walls.  We are supposed to have word walls, right?  Go into almost any elementary classroom and you will see words in alphabetical categories.  All the A words under a BIG A, and all the B words under the BIG B, etc.  These are frequently used words that students can refer to when reading or writing. That is what many teachers consider their word wall. They think that they have fulfilled their mandate to “have a word wall.”

What many teachers have not considered is vocabulary word walls. I have personally used vocabulary word walls effectively for years.  This is important... they are only effective if your goal in putting them up is to offer opportunities for your students to revisit the words you have taught them.  In our staff development trainings, revisiting the words has not been stressed.  Students must be exposed to a new word many times for it to become part of their knowledge base.

When done correctly, vocabulary word walls can partly address 2 of the 4 broad research-based practices for building vocabulary:
  1. Word Play and Exploration - most of the words must be student generated (with your help) for it to count as one of the 4 broad research-based practices for building vocabulary.
  2. Explicitly Teaching Words –One part of this broad research-based practice is to revisit the words many times. We know that students must be exposed to a new word many times and hopefully in different contexts in order for it to become part of their personal vocabulary, available for their use.  Revisiting is probably the most often neglected part of explicitly teaching vocabulary words.

So how do we build vocabulary word walls?    Remember, the goal of your vocabulary word wall is to 1.) get students interested in helping build it and interested in words: and 2.) give students the opportunity to revisit the vocabulary words they learned during the year.  That means you must set up situations where the students MUST use the word wall to complete assignments. For practical ideas and forms for using your word walls, refer to Vocabulary Centers and Partner Learning, written by a teacher and reading specialist. (See Chapter 5 in The New Book of Knowledge for assignment ideas.) Here are a few suggestions for word wall posters that either I have implemented or colleagues of mine.

Using Continuums to Build and Review Vocabulary
  1. Continuums – a great way to show how new words relate to words already in their vocabulary. Put words on a horizontal line going from least to most, smallest to largest, etc.  Ex: “Bodies of Water” – drop, puddle, pond, lake ... ocean.  If these are displayed all year, you can add to the continuum when you learn about another “Body of Water.”  As you first build the continuum and as you add to it throughout the year, it can lead to discussions that help students learn new words incidentally from each other.  (See Chapter 4 in The New Book of Knowledge for continuum topics)

  2. After teaching a lot of body parts (ankle, wrist, shoulder, shin, cheek,...), I drew an outline of a student on bulletin board paper and labeled the parts, being sure to include as many different digraphs, diphthongs, and blends as possible.  I underlined these.  We hung the human form with labels up on a doorway.  Since the students had learned the names of the parts of the body, they could use the labels to help them remember sounds (“sh” in shoulder and shin).

  3. I started many different lists on construction paper and kept adding to them all year long when new words were encountered in reading or other subjects.  Here are some poster titles we made:
    • good feeling words – (generous, brave, ...)
    • bad feeling words – (stingy, cheap, coward, ...)
    • relationship words – (uncle, aunt, cousin, ...)
    • homophones - the students’ favorite – (do, dew, due)
    • homographs – (read, read, record, record)
    • synonyms (stingy – cheap, bellowed – yelled, ...)
    • antonyms (generous – cheap, bellowed - whispered)
    • categories – Thank you to Liz Denny for this great idea.  She saw a remarkable increase in the number and proper use of these words in student writing. Her students are not allowed to use tired words

      - Ways People Feel (exhausted, elated, embarrassed, etc.)
      - Ways of Saying “Said” (I separated these into loud
         (bellowed, etc.) and soft (whispered, etc)
      -  Words for Hot (scorching, sizzling, blazing, etc.)
      -  Words for Walk (saunter, stroll, race, etc.)
      -  Words for Like (fancy, prefer, etc.)

  4. Numbers – This one occurred to me when I realized that my students didn't know what a solo was, or triplets, or a couple.  So I made one poster for each number and put all the words I could think of   (and the students came up with a few) that related to that number (EX: duet - two people singing).  Then I had a few students draw little pictures to show the new words. We glued the pictures by the words. So on the #1 poster we had one, uno, single, uni, unicycle, solo, alone, unique, and on the #2 poster we had two, duo, dos, duet, twins, couple, pair, both. We only did #’s 1 – 5.  If you try this, you will find that you come across words that represent numbers all the time, so just keep adding to the posters.  Be sure the students use this information in centers or writing.

  5. The students also liked a bulletin board called “Synonyms.”  It had simple words on separate pieces of index card with a more specific synonym for the word covering it (like a flap).  The students would “read the walls” in pairs and read the synonym then quiz each other to try to remember the simple word under it.  They would lift the flap to self-check. This got them really thinking as they were “reading the walls.”

    What do we do now? Now that you have a few posters with some vocabulary words on them, how do you give the students opportunities to revisit the words?  Here are some ideas I tried.

    •  After we had quite a few words on our posters, I made different centers focusing on the words.  For example, I wrote synonyms on cards (stingy – cheap) and antonyms on cards (cheap – generous), with the word “synonym” or “antonym” on the back of each card (self-checking).  The students worked in pairs sorting the stack of synonym and antonym cards.  When one wasn’t sure, they discussed it.  It was a great literacy center. I made and laminated 9 x 12 construction paper mats with index card size boxes and wrote "synonyms" in one box and "antonyms" in the other box for the students to sort the word cards into. After the students sorted them, they picked up the cards in the "synonym" box, turned the cards over and self-checked themselves by being sure each card in the stack had the word "synonym" on the back. If not, the students discussed it. After students did this several times, self-checking each time, they could time each other. This was a very popular center. You could also make another mat with the word "homophones" in one box and "homographs" in the other box. Have stacks of index cards with either 2 homophones or 2 homographs written on them with the answer on the back of each card. Remember, you are getting the words from lists on your word walls.

    •  I made other word sorts like sorting loud and soft ways of saying “said” and sorting good or bad feeling words.

    • After learning 3 different objects in Book of Knowledge lessons, students can sort labels by the objects and write them under the headings (object name). For example, after learning parts of a body, house, and table setting, the students sort the labels by putting them in categories and writing the titles.  Almost all the word wall posters could be turned into word sorting centers. There are many ideas for extending Book of Knowledge lessons into assignments and centers in The New Book of Knowledge.

    •  Pairing students up and have each pair start in a different part of the room and read the walls.

    •  Have forms for the students to fill out using the words on the walls. (T-charts, concept forms etc...). Find forms in "Vocabulary Center and Partner Learning: Activities, Forms and Picture.

    •  Copying titles and words from the posters into their My Own Book of Knowledge.

Illustrated Dictionary Book Image Everything Has A Name Workbooks A, B, C Word Analysis Book Image The New Book of Knowledge Book Image  

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This page last updated 06/22/2016