How should academic vocabulary be taught?

The new Common Core Standards call for students to learn “academic vocabulary.”

What many well-meaning teachers and parents do to “teach” this vocabulary is to ask students to look up in dictionaries or thesauruses the meanings of unknown words. This method of vocabulary instruction often fails because children don’t like to do it and so they pick the first meaning of a word, often the wrong meaning. If the children go online to look up the word, the result is even worse since online results list words but not nuances of meaning or usage.

So how can academic vocabulary be better taught and learned?

Cartoon of a waterskiier withe the caption, Aquatic:  relating to water

Aquatic: relating to water

One good way is to follow the advice of Robert Marzano, author of Building Academic Vocabulary (2004). He recommends

  • First, a teacher (or parent) explains the meaning of a new word to a child, giving an example that the child can remember. (I have found that the funnier the example, the easier it is for the child to relate the word to the example later on.)
  • Second, the child explains the new term in his or her own words. (If a word is difficult to pronounce, make sure the child says the word several times. I write the word phonetically, using syllable breaks, to help the child pronounce it.)
Cartoon of a man with footprints up his body and the words, Unassertive:  wimpy

Unassertive: wimpy

  • Next, the child makes a drawing of the word. (Stick figures are fine, but the meaning needs to be clear. Again, humor helps the child to attach the picture to the word.) A more dramatic child could act out the word. The idea is to explain the word not using words.
  • In the days after learning a new word, and from time to time thereafter, the child should encounter the word and the teacher or parent should ask what it means. If the child forgets, start the process again. If the parent makes a habit of using the word when talking to the child for a week or more, the child will better remember it.
Cartoon of a man with footprints up his body and the words, Unassertive:  wimpy

Mutilate: to cut in order to disfigure

  • From time to time, the teacher / parent and the student, or the student and her peers, should discuss vocabulary words. This could be every Monday, or twice a month, but regularly reviewing what a child has learned cements the ideas better each time they are reviewed.
  • Children should engage in fun games to help them remember vocabulary. (I use BINGO review games: a board labeled with 24 or 25 vocabulary words and a stack of definition cards. In a classroom setting, either I or a student student calls out a definition, and the children cover the correct word.)
Cartoon of a skull and crossbones with the words, Lethal:  deadly, toxic, fatal

Lethal: deadly, toxic, fatal

Adding one more idea to Marzano’s suggestions, I suggest that the word be used correctly in sentences. Many students I have taught can tell me the definition of a word, but when it comes to using the word correctly, they cannot do it. They use a noun for a verb; they don’t use the past tense or past participle of a verb; they leave off the “s” of plural words or of third person singular verbs; and when adding suffixes, they misspell. This usage work can be done orally so that it goes faster and so students don’t balk at it.

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