What is the best way to teach vocabulary to young students? The creators of the United States’ Common Core curriculum indicate that how vocabulary is introduced is the key to students’ success and that using the real world as context for that introduction can be highly beneficial.
Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says, “We’ve known for a long, long time from research that giving students a list of words and asking them to look them up in the dictionary and write a sentence is not an effective way to teach vocabulary.” A better way would be to introduce each word in a context in which it is often used, whether that context is social studies, science, or sports. Contextual clues help students learn and – more importantly – remember the words they learn to be used at a later time.
The appendix of the common standards is based on research by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, the authors of “Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction.” In it, they divide vocabulary words into three tiers:
These are words used in common, everyday speech. Native English speakers generally do not have trouble with them. They are therefore usually not the focus of classroom discussion.
Examples: but, they, know
Sometimes called “general academic words,” these words appear in many types of texts and transfer across disciplines. They can be a more precise way of saying simple things (e.g. “saunter” vs. “walk”), and they can sometimes be difficult to define using context clues.
Examples: layers, solid, surface
Also known as “domain-specific words,” these are less commonly used words specific to a discipline or field of study. They are more common in informational texts than in literature. Because these words are “hard,” authors often define them within a text.
Examples: molten, magma, lava
Source: Common Core State Standards, Appendix A
Tier-two words are the “sweet spot” for common-core instruction. They’re academic, but they appear in a number of different contexts. They have “wide applicability,” the standards say, and they need to be explicitly taught. Teachers use multiple texts dealing with the same topic to aid introduction. The idea is that by hearing the words in one context over and over, students will attach a deeper meaning to them and then be able to use them in other contexts.
Gina N. Cervetti is an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan who led a study on the effectiveness of using multiple texts on a single subject to introduce advanced vocabulary. Her conclusion was that, “If kids have knowledge of the topic of the text, … they’re having to wrestle less with the content of the texts, and that frees up attention for understanding unknown words and making inferences about the meaning of those words.”
However, some students, especially those who are young and those who are struggling readers, may need some direct vocabulary instruction in addition to the “text-set” approach. Some effective methods include teaching root words, prefixes, and suffixes; using the dictionary; playing word games; and writing sentences with new words. The Common Core standards themselves direct students “to grow their vocabularies through a mix of conversation, direct instruction, and reading.”
In 2000, the National Reading Panel released an influential report which found that learning vocabulary through reading and teaching vocabulary explicitly are both effective techniques. “Systematic repetition” and leading students to think deeply about what words mean could together help boost students’ understanding of new words as they are introduced.
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