What Is It?
In the intermediate grades in elementary school, students' knowledge of the world can expand rapidly through both academic and independent reading. To help students comprehend increasingly complex reading material, it is crucial that teachers show them how to build their vocabularies.
Teachers can build students' reading vocabularies by capitalizing on their listening and speaking skills. For example, teachers can expose students to new vocabulary during read-alouds. Through repeated exposure and opportunities to practice, students will begin to comprehend new vocabulary words in their reading and use them in their writing and speech.
In addition, teachers can build student vocabularies through the systematic study of prefixes, suffixes, and base words. By modeling and scaffolding this type of "word building," teachers encourage students to infer the meaning of untaught words that they encounter while reading.
Effective teachers prepare students to learn the specific vocabulary of content-area subjects. Words such as the geologic terms terminal moraine, esker, and alluvial fan are quite content-specific, and unless teachers make a conscious effort to expand students' knowledge of content-related words, students will not be able to gain a full understanding of the subject matter.
As students advance, teachers can release more of the vocabulary learning to students themselves by using literacy activities such as reciprocal teaching, where (among other tasks) students have opportunities to select the vocabulary words that they need to learn. If a teacher is not using reciprocal teaching yet, she can use a simpler strategy format in which students discuss the words that puzzle them and share their techniques for "word sleuthing."
Implications for ELLs
Limited vocabulary knowledge is often a major hindrance to reading comprehension for English language learners (ELLs). Some ELLs may be able to repeat or pronounce English words and phrases without really understanding them. They may be able to decode words and produce the appropriate sounds without extracting or constructing meaning.
ELLs learn word meanings through explicit instruction and through rich opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact. Beginners link word sounds to meanings through the context provided by predictable routines, concrete objects, pictures, gestures, physical movements, and experiential activities. ELLs also learn word meanings through listening to repeated readings, explicit explanations, and discussions of books on a variety of topics in fiction and nonfiction.
Most ELLs acquire the vocabulary involved in daily routines, play, and social interaction before they learn academic and rare words. Inferring the meaning of unknown words from context can be difficult for ELLs who may not fully understand that context.
ELLs need explicit instruction and practice in word analysis. Learning word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes helps ELLs to understand many unfamiliar words. Speakers of languages that share commonalties with English, such as Spanish and Portuguese, may find cognate or "sister words" (e.g., intelligent; inteligente) to be a valuable resource when reading English.
When English-proficient bilingual students explain English word meanings to less-proficient classmates, they can provide a valuable service while increasing their own interpretation skills.
Strategies for Supporting ELLs
Vocabulary is of critical importance to English language learners (ELLs). In addition to learning word definitions, ELLs need multiple exposures to new words in a variety of formats, as well as opportunities to use the words in meaningful contexts.
Effective teachers promote vocabulary learning through multiple strategies. For example, they can have students choose which of two newly learned words best applies to a given situation, discuss semantic features that differentiate close synonyms (e.g., shout and scream), and rank words according to meaningful criteria to help ELLs achieve deeper understanding.
Teachers say things like:
Effective teachers provide explicit explanation of potentially confusing words such as homophones (e.g., to, too, two; due, dew, do) and homographs (e.g., wind, wind; sow, sow). They also provide explicit help in matching pronunciations with print forms of words (e.g., debris, chaos). Explicit instruction and practice in word analysis, including word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes, help ELLs understand many unfamiliar words.
ELLs who are literate in Spanish may be taught to recognize and use cognates ("sister words" sharing common origins and meanings across languages) as a comprehension strategy. Students have a great advantage when they read words such as ancient and enormous and are able to understand them because of their Spanish cognates anciano and enorme. Teachers point out to students that not every pair of look-alike words is a cognate pair. Pie in English is a pastry dessert, while the Spanish pie means foot.
Teachers promote word awareness by having frequent vocabulary discussions; encouraging students to ask questions about words; and developing word webs, lists, and semantic feature charts with students. Semantic feature analysis charts can help students differentiate among words that have similar meanings.
A Semantic Feature Analysis Chart
Or, teachers write a group of related words on the board and say things like:
Teachers convert student comments, such as "Race is fast; crawl is slow," into categories:
In addition, effective teachers acknowledge the contribution and skill of bilingual students who provide translations to less-proficient students who need and want such help. Translating develops the linguistic skills of the interpreter and may provide less-proficient students with access to academic content.
Glimpse of the Classroom
Ms. M.'s class has just come inside from their outdoor lunch break. As students take their seats, they notice that their teacher has put a familiar chart up in front of the class.
Every Friday Ms. M. conducts a fun activity that helps students practice for tests. This afternoon, she is using the vocabulary-building chart to practice a vocabulary think-aloud activity with her students. They are working on a vocabulary practice test question that focuses on the word tripod.
Ms. M. says, "Let's think about the four answers. A tripod has to be something that could hold a camera. But knowing that fact does not help you narrow down the answers. All four answers--a table, a base, a platform, or a support--could hold a camera. So the context is not leading you directly to the meaning of tripod.
"But there is something familiar about the word tripod, something you have seen before: a meaningful part at the beginning of the word. Tri sounds familiar. You've heard that part before on the words triangle and tricycle. A triangle has three sides. A tricycle has three wheels. Maybe a tripod has three of something.
"As soon as the three connection pops into your mind, you're on your way to the right answer. Only one of the choices mentions three: 'D. A support with three legs.' The familiar prefix tri leads you to the correct answer.
"Notice that we used more than one strategy to unlock word meaning in our think-aloud. Notice how often it is helpful to say to ourselves, 'Let's think in slow motion about the meaning of this term,' or 'Suppose you were thinking aloud about each of the multiple-choice answers; your reasoning might sound like this . . .'"
After modeling the first think-aloud, she asks the class to look at the next sample item and asks if someone would like to pick a friend to help lead a think-aloud together. She promises to help if they get stuck at any point. Hands shoot up.
Adapted from the following:
Harmon, J.M. (2000). Assessing and supporting independent word learning strategies of middle school students, Journal of Adolescent &smp; Adult Literacy, 43(6), 518-527.
Graves, M. (2002). Reading comprehension instruction in grades 4-8. Naperville, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.
Questions to Think About