If you are like most adults, assigned vocabulary lists were part of your school life. The lists were often in alphabetical order, so words had little or no connection to curricular areas or each other. You probably even had to “learn” words you had never or rarely encountered. The weekly vocabulary assignment? “Find and write a definition for each word,” or “Use each word in a sentence.” A test came at the end of the week (we’re sure you aced it), and by the following Monday, you had forgotten the words and moved on to a new list.

Unfortunately, this type of vocabulary instruction continues in too many classrooms, despite powerful evidence that rote memorization simply does not work (Allington, 2012; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). This age-old method of vocabulary instruction is no fun at all. It is drudgery that often kills students’ interest in and fascination with words.

3 Great Ideas

Learning anything, including new words, involves connecting or integrating the new information into what students already know. If students have little background knowledge about new words or cannot see the connections between what they know and what is new, then learning will suffer.

So, how can we focus on making connections as we organize words for vocabulary exploration? Here are three suggestions:

Use read-aloud sessions. Ask children to listen for important or interesting words; list these on the board and use them for vocabulary instruction and word play.

Invite students to expand and deepen their word knowledge during content-area study. As they explore the topic of the unit, students have multiple opportunities to see new words in meaningful contexts and to use them in meaningful ways.

making and writing words

Help students see the meaningful patterns that exist in many words and organize words for study by their roots or patterns. This roots approach to word study is efficient and effective.

Did You Know That:

  • The English language contains about 1.6 million words. Yet research has found that students can only learn 8-10 words each week (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). Do the math! It’s impossible to teach students all the words they need to know as individual entities.
  • 90% of English words with more than one syllable are Latin-based. Most of the remaining 10% are Greek based (Brunner, 2004). So a focus on Latin and Greek roots is more efficient. Each of these roots generates dozens (or even a hundred or more) words.
  • More than 75% of Spanish words derive from Latin (Chandler & Schwartz, 1961/1991). A focus on Latin roots, then, helps English Language Learners succeed.

Here’s an example. The root trans-, which means “across” or “change,” is part of more than 180 (!) words in English. If students know the meaning of this root and also know to look for meaning-based chunks in words, they can easily learn many content-area words: transatlantic, transoceanic, transplant, transfusion, transparent, and transitive, to name a few.

Vocabulary instruction, like all instruction, should move from what students already know to what is new. Organizing new words for learning, whether they appear in a read-aloud book, are basic to a content unit, or especially because they share a Latin or Greek root, helps students make the connections that are essential for learning.

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