Building Vocabulary and Concept Knowledge
In this article, we are purposefully linking two large topics together because we feel that they can’t be discussed separately. It reminds us of the fable of the elephant and the seven blind men, none of whom could grasp the concept of the whole because they could only discern the parts. Research tells us that vocabulary is the best predictor of knowledge, far better than an IQ score (Farley & Elmore, 1992). Vocabulary and reading comprehension are closely linked because of the relationship between words and conceptual knowledge (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982). Concept knowledge is an understanding of ideas, whereas words are labels for these ideas.
Students learn vocabulary in a variety of ways, including within the context of the reading itself. However, their ability to be able to glean contextual understanding from the reading requires active teaching. This happens through direct instruction (Stahl, 1983) and application of intentional strategies to figure out the meaning of the words (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000).
A direct instruction approach to vocabulary involves providing definitional lessons about words that are essential for understanding a piece of text. We use several research-based techniques to provide direct instruction on vocabulary—conceptual word sorts, word derivations, affixes, and using reference materials like dictionaries (Brassell & Flood, 2004). Children benefit from explicit and definitional teaching in the technical vocabulary they will encounter in a reading—photosynthesis, westward expansion, and multiplication—in order to understand a text in which they will encounter such words (Beck et al., 1982).
Students also benefit from experiences that allow them to internalize new vocabulary so that they can call upon a definition of a word when they need it in reading. Vocabulary role-play (Frey & Fisher, 2007) is a popular activity in our classes when we need students to absorb lots of technical words quickly. Sentence strips are prepared with the words we have been studying, and students take turns coming to the front of the class. The word is held over the child’s head so that the entire class, but not our volunteer, can see it. The job of the class is to pantomime the word in an effort for the student to guess the term. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a class of fourth-graders acting out the word denominator by crouching under their desks, while others stood on the desks to represent numerator. It’s even more interesting to explain what it was they were doing to the principal who happened to walk by at that moment.
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