Vocabulary Discussion to Teach Word Meanings

     Educators and speech language pathologists are all too familiar with the myriad of activities used for teaching vocabulary, but sometimes the best way is the old-fashioned way - classroom discussion. Engaging students in active discussions about word meanings can be very rewarding.
     During classroom discussion, students can learn a great deal from their peers and add to their "experiences" about the target words. Steven Stahl's Vocabulary Development makes some good points about discussing vocabulary as a class:

Discussions can clarify misunderstandings 
Give and take discussions can help students make connections about words they partially know or only knew in one context. Making these misunderstandings public allows the instructor to "shape them into conventional meaning." Most likely, if one student misunderstands the meaning of a word, you've got several more students in your discussion that don't understand it either.

Practice and Preparation
While students are waiting to be called upon, they are able to rehearse, practice and prepare their own response for the discussion. Only one child is called to answer a question or add to the discussion, but all of the students around him are practicing what they might say and are thinking about what they know about the vocabulary word. This act of students practicing "covertly" can lead to increased vocabulary learning and a deeper and broader understanding of the word.

Using the Text
Research has shown that learning words in text improves comprehension. It's recommended teachers should chose the words for discussion that are important to the text. For example, if the class is reading Lois Lowry's Number the Stars and comes across the sentence, "Kristi dawdled just behind them or scampered ahead, never out of sight," two of the words give context into Kristi's motive or emotion. Dawdle is walking slowly, gently or powerfully, and means the character is oblivious or wasting time. Students can discuss how dawdle and scamper provide added inferential information and give insight into why Kristi is walking in such a way.

Classroom discussion or even one-on-one discussion, can provide the student with added experiences that help them recall the meaning of the word. When trying to recall what a word means while reading or taking a test, the previous discussion might trigger associations to help with word retrieval.  "Oh, yeah, I remember we talked about that in class and Jake said...." or "it was really funny when Ashley said ___ about this word."

Technology and Classroom Discussion

Finally, some schools in our area us smart board technology during classroom discussion. The instructor uses computers and tablets hooked up to a large screen that acts like a large classroom tablet. You display the app or program on the board and then teachers and students can touch the board like a tablet or phone to interact with the software. Our iPad vocabulary apps, InferCabulary and WordQuations, have been used with smart board technology and some pretty amazing discussions arose in this classroom exercise.  With InferCabulary we've heard, "No, prominent can't just mean sticking out like that tree, because you see that picture of a green eye?" WordQuations really lends itself to helping students make connections using an "equation" to determine the meaning of verb synonyms along with vine-like videos.

Low tech and high tech classroom discussions are important for students to understand new and lesser-known vocabulary words words in a deeper and broader way.

Breadth and Depth of Vocabulary Knowledge

       We have had the privilege of speaking at various conventions and meetings talking about the InferCabulary and WordQuations methods for vocabulary. In our talks we always include background in vocabulary knowledge/research and discuss how important it is for students to know vocabulary broadly and deeply.

Rebecca Silverman and Anna Hartranft discuss the dimensions of vocabulary in terms of breadth and depth in their book, Developing Vocabulary and Oral Language in Young Children
Breadth refers to "having at least surface-level knowldege" of many vocabulary words. For example, I've heard and read the word, perspicuous. I know it has something to do with the word "look," but I'm not sure I could use it correctly in writing or while speaking. This means I have a surface-level knowledge of perspicuous, but not a strong, healthy knowledge.
Depth of vocabularly refers to a "robust" or strong, healthy knowledge of a word. It involves knowing the "many different facets of words," including how it sounds (phonology), the written form (orthography), other forms of the word (morphology), it's grammatical use (syntax), meanings and how it relates to other words (semantics) and how to convey meaning to others (pragmatics). Whew! That's a lot of knowledge - deep and broad knowledge.
Having broad and deep knowledge of a word means that when children hear or read the word, they will fully understand it. This is what we need to be working towards in the classroom and in language therapy. Completing worksheets, taking quizzes, and using vocabulary words in a sentence does not always go far enough into helping our students with language-based learning difficulties tap into a deeper knowledge of vocabulary.

Words and their Concepts

In order for
students to effectively learn vocabulary, it is essential that they learn the relationship
between spoken/printed words and the concepts that the words represent.  According to Smith (1995), concepts are like the building
blocks—the basic units of belief and thought. 
Words are simply the labels
that are attached to these beliefs and thoughts.  Whenever a person has a frame of reference
(also known as background knowledge) for these concepts, the underlying meaning
is understood, so the word is often remembered. For people who do not have
language disorders, these words will be easily stored and retrieved.  The depth of understanding of the new concept
continues to grow as the person learns more about the concept by reading about
it and/or experiencing it personally. 
The understanding of the concept is fine-tuned, and oftentimes, words
can be added to convey these slight nuances.  
According to
Shane Templeton and John Pikulski of Houghton Miffilin,  vocabulary knowledge can grow in four ways:
·   Elaboration of a
vocabulary word—
a student might learn
that “cat” as a pet actually can apply to large, wild cats, such as lions
·    New words can be linked with understood concepts—miserable, a new word, can be linked to the
understanding of “sad.”  Or, prosperous, with the idea of having a
lot of money
·   New concepts can be connected with known words—learning that “resist” is not just applicable to physical resisting
(pushing back against an object), but also resisting temptation (emotionally
·   Learning a word and a concept together—learning a new
concept, and at the same time, being introduced to a novel word, such as metamorphosis 
How we teach
new words will depend on which of the above processes is occurring for the

student. It is easiest--for most
students--to learn a new word that
can be linked to a  known concept. Many times, a simple explanation is enough for the
new word to be learned. It is hardest to develop a concept and a label for the concept—the student must develop what is known
as a “schema,” then link the novel word to this new schema.  Therefore, more time will be spent on this
process.  Because we want students to
understand words in a deep, broad way (Gaves, 1994,) we need to provide them
with scaffolding so that novel words can be linked with known words and
concepts as frequently as possible. 
Words and concepts are inextricably linked. Depending on the role these
new words play, teachers must expend different levels of instruction in order
to teach them effectively.

Activities to Support Vocabulary Development

Now that you have a great user-friendly vocabulary
definition, how do you help your students “own” the meanings? How do you
support their learning of these vocabulary terms?

Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s Bringing Words to Life is one of several books we love that gives practical suggestions for supporting vocabulary learning. In it, the authors give activities that can be used to
support the understanding of the vocabulary terms. Likewise, in Developing Vocabulary and Oral Language in Young Children, Silverman and Hartranft list activities to help students "play with words."
To give you some examples of how to use these activities,
we’re going to use words from our InferCabulary2 iPad app: conspirator, din, horde, and
. You could work with the student on these four words using
InferCabulary2 and then engage in activities to support the learning of these
four terms. 
Activities could include:
Word Associations
This is a commonly used method for reinforcing and
supporting the understanding of vocabulary terms by speech language
pathologists. It looks something like this:
  • ·     
    Which word goes with “thief?” (conspirator)
  • ·     
    Which word goes with “a loud unpleasant noise?”
  • ·     
    Which word goes with “gang?” (horde)
  • ·     
    Which word goes with “grieving?” (mourner)

Asking important questions of your students to help them “associate”
the meaning of the words helps the student process the information and creates
a deeper understanding of the vocabulary word.
Relate to Personal
This question activity helps a student associate his own
experiences with the vocabulary word.
  • ·     
    Have you ever done something wrong with a friend
    and gotten in trouble? (conspirator)
  • ·     
    Have you ever heard a really loud noise? (din)
  • ·     
    Have you ever gone to a large concert? (horde)
  • ·     
    Have you ever gone to a funeral or lost someone
    you love? (mourner)

      Often students can’t relate to the words because they don’t
know how to associate the word to their own experience. Your job is to help
them find that connection.
Word Lines

Put the word and its synonyms on a word line or continuum. Using
the word horde, I created a word map using Inspiration Maps for iPad. You could
also do this low tech using paper and pencil or sticky notes.
Talk about which is “more,” crowd or horde, mob or multitude, gang or horde? The student will begin to understand how their new vocabulary word relates to synonyms of the word. Adding a new set of words to the meaning "a large group," will enhance the meaning and establish a deeper knowledge of the word.

Have the students act out the word. For example, conspirator could be acted out by brainstorming ideas of what friends could get into trouble doing. Use all the verbs from the vocabulary list and have the children act out each word in order for other students to guess.

No matter what activities you use for vocabulary learning, make it fun! When kids are having fun, both sides of the brain are engaged leading to deeper learning and retention of words.

Tweaking Vocabulary Definitions

Have you ever wondered how the dictionaries came up with their definitions and why are they so unfriendly to users? Beck, McKeown and Kucan's Bringing Words To Life gives background on how definitions came to be.

Definition practices date back to the 18th century and involve first describing the word by class and then how it differs from other members in the class. They give an example of the word bachelor which is defined as, "a man who is unmarried." Another consideration is space - dictionaries try to use as little space as possible for each of the thousands of words. 

Many of our students with language-learning differences struggle with definitions because of how they are worded, the lack of information because of space and the fact that there are tier two vocabulary words embedded within the definitions.

For example, the word prominent, is defined by Webster's Dictionary as:

prom-i-nent 1: sticking out beyond a surface or line 2: easily noticeable e: distinguished

Right off the bat there are 2 tier two vocabulary words embedded in the definition - surface and distinguished - making the definition difficult for a student to access. The definition itself is not worded in everyday language. 

I like to use the online Cobuild Dictionary and it has this definition for prominent: 

prominent (adj) something that is "prominent" is very noticeable or an important part of something else. 
Then I tweak the definition to add more information:
prominent (adj) is someone or something that is very noticeable, stands out or is an important part of something.
My definition will be longer than the dictionary definition and will almost always use the words: something, someone or describes at the beginning. Our InferCabulary apps use photographs to provide multiple contexts to broaden students' understanding of their words. It can be used as another tool for deeper understanding.

Don't be afraid to tweak the definitions for students, so they develop a deeper and broader understanding of the terms. Once they understand deeply, you can help them associate that meaning with the definition given in their classroom to maximize learning.

Vocabulary using Active Involvement

We are excited to have added Rebecca Silverman and Anna
Harnanft’s new book Developing Vocabulary and Oral Language in Young
(2015) to our arsenal of vocabulary tools.  In it, Drs. Silverman and Harnanft share
several activities for reinforcing vocabulary including “Example/Non-Example,”
“Related Words,” and “Double Jeopardy.”

All of these activities require active involvement on the
part of the student, which research supports is a “must” if we want students to
“anchor” and truly own new words.  These
games and activities help students prune and/or expand their understanding of
the new vocabulary words so that they have a deeper and broader understanding.
In Example/Non-Example,” students hold thumbs up or thumbs
down for each word the teacher/SLP offers for a newly-learned term.   For older students, this might look more
like, “can veto laws, can make treaties with Senate approval and can issue
executive orders” and thumbs down to “writes laws” if studying “Executive

For an
elementary example, if the term is “vehicle”, students would hold thumbs up for
“airplane, train, scooter,” but would hold thumbs down for “playground.”

In “Related Words,” connections are made between new
words, and words already in the vocabulary “store”. By building connections, we
help students store and retrieve vocabulary more effectively.  In this activity, young children would
brainstorm (and a bubble map could be drawn on the board or on paper) words
that go with the new vocabulary (e.g., vehicle). The teacher or SLP would help
demonstrate how these words can be further organized by subcategory. For
example, “car, crash, plane, train, subway, boat). 

For older students, this might be useful for demonstrating
types of shelters (temporary, permanent) to include vocabulary such as
apartment versus condominium, teepee versus tent, or mansion versus shack.
In “Double Jeopardy,” students anchor understanding of
multiple-meaning words, while having to formulate questions.  A board is set up, similar to the game
Jeopardy. Students answer questions such as, “A word that means two things: a
flying animal and sports equipment you use to hit a ball.” The student must
think flexibly to retrieve the question: “What is a bat?” 
We are so excited to see how much focus is being placed on
the important skill of developing vocabulary. 
Get creative, and engage in cool activities like these ones, rather than
just having students memorize definitions on index cards. They will thank you,
and their vocabulary stores will broaden and deepen!

InferCabulary1 - Vocabulary Affects Reading Comprehension

We are excited to be launching our 5th app in a couple of weeks - InferCabulary1. A visual vocabulary app for elementary age focusing on Core Curriculum nouns and adjectives. Why is vocabulary so important for our students?

Vocabulary is so much more than just understanding definitions of words.  Vocabulary affects how well a student understands what he reads, more commonly known as reading comprehension.

“Of the many compelling reasons for providing students
with instruction to build vocabulary, none is more
important than the contribution of vocabulary knowledge
to reading comprehension. Indeed, one of the most
enduring findings in reading research is the extent to
which students’ vocabulary knowledge relates to their
reading comprehension.” (Lehr et al., 2004)

Students can decode words well and read fluently, but if they have weak vocabulary skills, they won't fully understand what they are reading. They will miss the important nuances of the text and the underlying meaning. This is why vocabulary is the focus of our first iPad app, InferCabulary. Students need strong vocabulary skills not to just be able to define words, but to understand what they are reading.  Long after they have graduated from school, reading skills will be so important to how they navigate through life and continue to learn and grow.

B.F. Skinner said, "Education is what remains after you've forgotten everything you've been taught."  How true!

Stay tuned for InferCabulary1, but in the meantime checkout our other apps:
InferCabulary:  http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/infercabulary/id796698831?mt=8&uo=4 
InferCabulary3: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/infercabulary-3/id937473578?mt=8
WordQuations: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wordquations/id938397661?mt=8

Mastering Word Problems--Notability

A few weeks ago, we shared about the iPad app, Notability, which
enables us to create visual images of characters that can be easily
duplicated, rotated, shrunken or enlarged for each "scene" of the
story.  Last week, we shared about the language of math, promising more information on how to use Notability to help make word problems more visual for our students with language difficulty.

When students are very young, it is easy to draw visual representations of math problems, such as 2+3.  As students get older, however, the demands of the math problems increase.  It is not feasible to have students draw representations of larger numbers.  I have noticed that we simply skip this step, expecting older students to jump over the representative step, right to the symbolic step.  If students are not yet able to make this adjustment, they can be frustrated trying to get at what is being asked.  Notability helps resolve that problem!

My student was struggling with what to do when the word problem said,  "There are eight groups of four students."  I asked her to draw four students, so she drew:

I said, "That's great, there are four students there, but how many groups do we need?" She said, "Eight groups".  I showed her the "Copy" function on the app (the scissors icon).  She circled the four students, pressed copy, then paste. I said, "Great, now you have two groups, how many do you need?" She pressed paste again, and immediately said, "Oh! I get it, I need to multiply 4x8!" Here is what it would look like with eight groups of four students:

This app is great for division and subtraction as well, with a handy eraser, multiple colors and highlighters.  Your older students who still require visual representations will appreciate your using Notability, not just for reading comprehension, but also for word problems!  

Teachers With Apps review of InferCabulary, InferCabulary3 and WordQuations

We are thrilled by our latest apps review on TeachersWithApps.com by Jackie Bryla. This wonderful website reviews apps for teachers, parents and students. They field test the apps with educators and students, write reviews about the apps, and keep us up to date on app specials.

In her review, Visual Vocabulary Apps by Communication APPtitude, Jackie writes:
"WordQuations, InferCabulary and InferCabulary3 should be on every iPad that is associated with middle school and high school students, as well as those educating that population. Every student should have the opportunity to experience the visual vocabulary that has been created by Communiation APPtitude! Bravo to the developers for these AMAZING, BRILLIANT and COMPREHENSIVE vocabulary apps!"
If you are looking for information on apps before you buy and want to know the latest and greatest on the market, go to www.TeachersWithApps.com and check out our apps on the APP Store!

WordQuations is on the App Store!


    We are so excited to announce our newest vocabulary app, WordQuationsTM, is now on the App Store!

    This iPad app is designed to help students master the subtle meanings of verb synonyms. This app will help students understand
the distinctions between synonyms such as plod, meander,
saunter and slink. The formula presented throughout this app
provides clues about character motivation and feelings for improved reading
comprehension. Students can also use the app to improve verb choices in their
writing eliminating random thesaurus choices. You'll be able to see our actors
from The Simpletons act out each synoynm so students can see the body language
and facial expressions associated with each word. More information is located
on our website.