Words Matter: Tips for Meaningful Vocabulary Instruction
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” —Mark Twain
In that one sentence, Mark Twain states that words do matter—that they are important. Choosing the right word means that readers, writers, listeners, and speakers need to have a lot of words in their word inventories. Moreover building that word inventory so that students know the right words requires good instruction in words—not just in decoding words, but also in knowing what those words mean.
In its summary of the scientific research on reading instruction, the National Reading Panel (2000) identified both phonics and vocabulary (word meaning) as essential components of an effective literacy curriculum. Yet, despite this acknowledgement of the importance of word study (phonics and vocabulary), there continues to be a vigorous debate about the “when” and “how” of word study.
So what might effective word study instruction actually look like? Here are five principles that can be used to help in designing effective instruction.
Word Study Should Focus on Patterns
The human brain is a pattern detector. It’s easy for us to see patterns in our environment. Words are made up patterns that represent sounds and/or meaning. For example, the phonogram –ight always represents the sound /ite/. Knowing that, students with this knowledge can sound out words such as sight, fight, flight, and more. Similarly, the word root or morpheme terr(a) means earth or land. Students who know this are more likely to figure out the meaning to words such as terrain, terrace, territory, subterranean, Mediterranean, and more. Focusing instruction on word patterns has a generative effective in that one patterns provides students with information to unlock the sound and meaning to many words.
Word Study Requires Repetition and Visibility
Let’s face it, for a word to find a home in our heads, we need to encounter it in a variety of contexts and modalities. Students need to see, say, spell, and even write the words we want them to learn multiple times. Moreover, these exposures should occur over a period of days and weeks, rather than massed into one or two days. Students should see words in various texts, on word walls, in cloze sentence, in word sorts, in word maps, word games, and in other parts of the school day—art, music, library, etc. Indeed, word study should not be limited to the school. Parents should be alerted to the current words under study and be asked to include them in their own home interactions with their children, too.
Word Study Should Include Real Reading
Words generally do not exist in isolation. We most often encounter them in a reading passage where the meaning of individual words can be affected by the other words around them. Although I am not dismissing the study of individual words, good instruction requires that there be a constant back and forth between studying words in isolation and encountering them in authentic reading and oral conversations.
Word Study Should be Game-Like
Have you ever noticed all the games we play as adults that involve the play of words? If we enjoy such activities as adults, why wouldn’t our students? Even the simplest games are likely to engage students in deeper levels of analysis and consideration of words than they might normally do. Moreover, the play factor in such activities is more likely to ignite students’ interests in words.
Word Study Should Foster an Open and Inquisitive Attitude about Words
Word study should be fascinating. As teachers we should share our fascination with students and encourage them to develop their own fascination. Sharing with students the origins of certain words or interesting stories about words are likely to develop in students their own positive attitudes and inquisitiveness about words. For example, knowing that the word root phil(e) can lead students to consider why Philadelphia is called the “City of Brotherly Love.”
Making Word Study a Priority in Your Classroom
If we truly wish to help all students become proficient readers and writers, words cannot be ignored. If we want students to learn important content in science, math, social studies, and other content areas the study of words need to become a real priority. Words do matter! The challenge for all of us it to create word study that goes beyond the tradition and that challenges and excites students. As Karen Bromley noted, “This requires teachers who are passionate about words and language, who immerse their students in language, and who provide direct instruction that is thoughtful, intentional, and varied.”
So What Does the Research REALLY Say!?!
The five principles I just shared are not just based on my own opinion. They are grounded in research and in the work my colleagues and I have done in thousands of classrooms nationwide.
In her widely circulated 2019 report, Hard Words: Why aren't kids being taught to read?, education journalist Emily Hanford argues that many students struggle in reading because they are not being provided sufficient and adequate instruction in phonics. Similarly, a 2013 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that many 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students struggle with vocabulary. Over half of the 4th grade students had difficulty recognizing the meaning of words such as brilliant, parched, and knowingly. Over a quarter of the 4th graders were unable to recognize the meaning of gratitude, pride, and encounter. Over half of 8th grade students struggle with the meaning of reverently, and over half of 12th graders struggled with novel.
If a student has difficulty decoding or understanding key words in texts they are reading, it is very likely that the student will experience difficulty in fully comprehending the text. And, indeed, some evidence for problems in word study comes from national assessments of reading where at both 4th and 8th grades significant numbers of students struggle in reading. Moreover, there has been very little improvement in overall reading achievement in the past 25 years.
Word study needs to be a priority in our classrooms, from kindergarten through grade 12 (and probably beyond). As students move through the grades their curriculum becomes more focused on content areas such as literature, math, science, social studies, and the arts. Each of these areas, and others, have specialized words that students must understand in order to be successful in their studies. Knowing to decode or “sound out” does not ensure that they understand the meaning of the word. And, it appears that there is much that schools can still do. According to Dr. Margaret McKeown, a vocabulary expert, “There’s quite a bit written on vocabulary and the best way to teach it—unfortunately we’re not seeing it go into the classroom” (Huffington Post article).
If we truly wish to help all students become proficient readers and writers, words cannot be ignored. If we want students to learn important content in science, math, social studies, and other content areas the study of words need to become a real priority. Words do matter! The challenge for all of us it to create word study that goes beyond the traditional and that challenges and excites students. As Karen Bromley noted, “This requires teachers who are passionate about words and language, who immerse their students in language, and who provide direct instruction that is thoughtful, intentional, and varied.”
So consider using the principles suggested and watch as the vocabularies of your students grow and their attitudes about the importance of words change.