Vocabulary, like anything else, is best learned by reading a lot. It’s a simple truth that the more we read, the more words we encounter, and the more words we will learn as they appear in different contexts.
Yet, sometimes this doesn’t seem to be enough. We sense that we need to do more for a student who is struggling. Or, maybe we feel internal or external pressure to demonstrate that we are doing more, even if that more does not really help.
In my school, this conversation surfaces when we have students in the middle grades, or later, who have not had a rich experiences with books or who are learning English as another language. This is compounded if these students do not have a strong literacy background in their native language. They may have few strategies for figuring out new words. They may get stuck on a word they don’t know or can’t pronounce. They don’t understand that reading on is a viable strategy because it places due emphasis on constructing meaning.
This issue takes on a new urgency as we increase our reliance on metrics. More and more, we are using scores on standardized tests to determine next steps for students who may not be “typically developing” with their peers. We are going back to a time where we gave undue attention to deficits rather than strengths and growth.
Nevertheless, ignoring the importance of vocabulary development is not the solution. I don’t have quick fixes, but I have a few ideas that while not new, may be under utilized in the classroom.
- Teach students about cognates, when appropriate.
- Help students identify prefixes and suffixes. Discuss how they change the meaning of a familiar word.
- Help students to recognize root words.
- Anticipate when unfamiliar and important vocabulary may prevent students from learning, and help students use familiar parts of complex words to learn new words.
- Use the new vocabulary in the classroom and encourage students to do so as well.
- Encourage students to use precise vocabulary in their speech and writing.