Strategies Proven to Help Students Learn Vocabulary

Dr. Hairrell et al. performed a systematic review of
24 current vocabulary research studies. Their review concurred that several
instructional approaches and strategies have been proven to increase students’
vocabulary knowledge.  They also
determined that the National Reading Panel was correct in identifying the need
for additional research.

One of the findings was that when teachers use Semantic
Strategies
, it has a strong positive affect on students’ understanding of
vocabulary.  These semantic strategies included
discussions, student-friendly definitions, word characteristics, examples and non-examples,
visuals, and graphic organizers
. Several studies (Apthorp, 2006; Fore III, Boon,
& Lowrie, 2007; Nash & Snowling, 2006) reported positive gains when
semantic strategies were part of a multicomponent vocabulary program.
Additionally, studies showed semantic instruction to be effective with students
with limited vocabulary knowledge (Apthorp, 2006) and resulted in more
“durable” knowledge (Nash & Snowling, 2006, p. 349).
We
know that children benefit, not only when we talk about words or define them,
but when we provide them with visuals, and show them how to link new words with
known words. When they are provided multiple contexts, and learn about the
precision of meanings through examples and non-examples, they are more
successful at “owning” the new words. For example, after a student learns the
concept of  “audacious”, we might ask, “Is
this an example or non-example of audacious, ‘The
audacious boys rode their skateboards downstairs and handrails
.’”  “How about this one? ‘The audacious parents
served their children breakfast
.’?” As students fine-tune their understanding of words, these examples/non-examples can become more subtle.  
Reference: Angela Hairrell , William Rupley & Deborah Simmons
(2011) The
State of Vocabulary Research, Literacy Research and Instruction,
50:4, 253-271, DOI:
10.1080/19388071.2010.514036

Vocabulary Meaning Has a Dimmer Switch

How do we foster meaningful vocabulary skills in students? Deeper and broader understanding of vocabulary meaning doesn't happen all at once, according to Charlene Cobb and Camille Blachowicz in "Look Up the List" Vocabulary Instruction. Look at it like a dimmer switch where the understanding of a word's meaning will increase over time. As they learn, the light becomes brighter. They say, first, you need to "flood students with words."

Set your classroom up with word charts, puzzle books, games, dictionaries, alphabet books, etc., so that their learning environment is inundated with word meaning. Next, engage the students in word play and read daily from materials that step up the game on their vocabulary with words that are above their level. Past posts have mentioned word games we love to engage our students in active learning, such as:

  • Apples to Apples
  • Tribond for Kids
  • Taboo
  • Outburst
  • Scattegories
  • Last Word

Tell jokes and puns in class. Show them that you love learning new words, playing with the meaning of words, and figuring out why a joke is funny. Let them see you use strategies to figure out new words, so they can learn by example and develop their own strategies.


Multiple Meaning Words

"What did one math book say to the science book? Boy, do I have problems!"

There are few things funnier than listening to young children attempt to tell jokes.  They just think they are hysterical, and we go along with it--laughing at non-humor.  I had the distinct pleasure of spending time over Memorial Day weekend with almost-five year old nephews who are just three months apart. We sat around telling jokes for about 30 minutes. The older boy laughed at some of the more obvious jokes, the younger one forced himself to laugh, missing the humorous elements in all the jokes.  Both boys told their own made-up jokes to varying degrees of "success" in terms of making sense.  My favorite: "Why did the mom walk aaaall the way to the airport? (why?) She had a lightbulb in her stomach!" (burst of hysterical laughter from him, encouraging laughter from the adults.)

So what happens with these types of jokes? This nephew had learned the "format" for this basic form of joke, but lacked language precision, which is still developing at this age.  He realized he had to  tell a story, and that it needed a punchline, but he has not yet developed his awareness of multiple meaning words, which plays a large role in many puns and jokes. 

By 6 or 7, children typically realize there is a whole new world of figurative language, including multiple-meaning words.  Throughout the elementary years, students are fine-tuning their understanding that words can have nuances of meaning. For example the word "prudent" (which is in our InferCabulary2 app) can apply to a variety of "wise choice-making" such as wearing sunscreen, eating healthfully, studying etc. As they enter elementary school, student's language skills begin to explode, yet again.  Amelia Bedelia becomes funny, not because she does silly things, but because of her lack of awareness that words can mean more than one thing.

It is important to spend time helping children learn that words can mean more than one thing.  Not only is this language skill important for comprehension, but it sure makes jokes funnier!

This chart of several multiple meaning words by age was borrowed with permission from: http://www.home-speech-home.com/multiple-meaning-words.html 

Grades
K-2
Grades
3-5
Grades
6-8
Grades
9-12
bark
bit
bat
bolt
bowl
foot
gum
file
fly
hard
hit
last
left
jam
hide
check
box
club
can
clip
stamp
shake
sink
star
seal
before
bill
bore
blue
bear
range
pool
racket
pound
pupil
light
leaves
mold
mine
log
head
jerk
handle
kid
kind
stable
steer
squash
stoop
stern
dusting
dread
either
date
crane
company
charge
cobbler
column
chair
tackle
strike
terrific
trace
suit
like
lash
late
loom
marker
mint
monitor
minor
patient
novel
current
custom
doctor
cobble
draft
buckle
coach
channel
cabinet
certain
refrain
prune
riot
plane
reservation
harbor
hamper
grave
hatch
ground
sentence
spare
season
solution
sanction

Vocabulary Storage

When a student learns the meaning of a new word, the word must then be stored somewhere in the brain for future use and application.  When the word is encountered again, either in spoken or written form, the student pulls up whatever concept he/she has for the word, and applies it to the new context.
        For example, if the student learns that the word condominium means a place where people live, the word becomes neurologically linked with other words, such as house, apartment, mansion, bungalow etc. However, condominium means more than just a shelter.  There are features about a condominium that make it slightly different from an apartment, and very different from a mansion or a shack.
     When vocabulary instruction emphasizes how new words relate to the broader picture, and how the new word is different from other words that are related, the neurological storage of that new word is much more effective, making the word available to aid listening and reading comprehension as well as for retrieval during conversation or writing.

Graphic organizers are a great method for guiding students to discover the relationships among and between words that they already have, and how new words should be effectively stored.  Walking a student through this process can be very helpful since it helps them, in a visual way, lay down, or enhance the "neural network" or filing system for storing words.  For example:  

Shelters (Inspiration File)

Another graphic organizer that helps students hone their understanding of words, is the category/subcategory organizer in which circles fit inside other circles (and circles can overlap) to show hierarchical relationships.  This visual representation helps students store words in a more organized way.  Some students struggle to think flexibly about how a single word may fit into multiple subcategories.  For example, I could say "sheep" is a kind of animal, but if I say it is a farm animal, I have narrowed down the field of choices for my listener and used greater precision. In speech-language therapy, we spend a good deal of time helping students develop the framework of categories and subcategories since many students who struggle with word-retrieval lack this important skill. 
Simply providing definitions for new words is not enough for robust vocabulary instruction.  Students benefit from--and students with language disorders require--instruction that clarifies how novel words relate to stored words so that strong "neural networks" are established. Without this structured storage of words, students will lack precision in their spoken and written work, and students with word-retrieval issues will truly struggle.  Make it Visual! Make it Interactive! Make it Connected!