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.
In addition to learning specific words they will encounter in a text, students also need to learn how to structurally and contextually figure out unfamiliar words. James Baumann and his colleagues have described the utility of a combined approach that includes morphemic instruction to understand word parts such as affixes and roots, coupled with contextual instruction to show students how to look around a word to find the meaning (Baumann et al., 2002). When you think about it, it makes quite a bit of sense. Consider a time when you’ve encountered an unfamiliar word, like the one in the sentence below:
The candidates’ slanderous charges of one another’s conduct during the campaign resulted in an imbroglio as the news media reported conflicting information.
In all likelihood, you used both approaches to figure out that imbroglio meant a “tangled mess”:
- It reminded you of embroilment (morphemic).
- You used what you knew about slander, the news media, and conflicting reports to arrive at an approximation of the meaning (contextual).
However, the sentence could have been contextually impoverished as well. “No one expected the imbroglio that followed” is more difficult if you don’t already know the word, and you may or may not have made the “embroilment” link without those other supporting clauses. When we’re reading, we use all of these—definitional knowledge, morphemic analysis, and contextual clues—to make meaning. That’s why it’s so important that we not only “teach vocabulary,” but that we also teach how we integrate the ways we use what we know to figure things out as we read. When we model our thinking and ask our students to explain theirs, we build habits that extend beyond a single lesson.
Doug models his thinking about unfamiliar words using an inside/outside strategy (Fisher & Frey, in press). When he comes to a cumbersome word like cumbersome, he tells his students,
The first thing I’m going to do is to look inside the word. That means I need to break the word apart to see if I can figure out pieces of its meaning. I don’t know what cumber- means, and that doesn’t really sound familiar. Cucumber, that’s about all I can think of. But it ends in -some, and that makes me think of awesome, something big. I don’t know if that’s right, so I have to try it out in the sentence. [He reads] “Antonio stumbled under the weight of his cumbersome load of pots and pans.” Well, cucumber doesn’t make any sense in that sentence, so I am ruling that out. I thought that -some at the end of that word might be something big, and that could work. But I can’t be sure, so I am going to look outside the word, at this sentence, and the ones around it. The next sentence reads, “Even though they were difficult to carry, he knew his family would be unable to survive in the mountains with these simple kitchen items.” Yes, cumbersome does mean big, but it’s more than that. There are clues outside the word that help me understand it. The author talks about the “weight” of the pots and pans, and in the next sentence he says they were “difficult to carry.” I can put the inside and outside clues together to figure out that cumbersome means something that is big, heavy, and hard to carry.
That may seem like a lot of time spent on one word, but the teaching point has less to do with learning cumbersome than it does with learning a problem-solving method for building one’s own vocabulary.
The goal of learning all this vocabulary is to use it in oral language, reading, and writing. That means promoting transfer of vocabulary skills across these dimensions of literacy. Hilda Taba (1967) developed the list-group-label approach when Nancy was in elementary school, and it is still useful with our learners today. This is an effective means for modeling how we link vocabulary and concepts to reading. We begin by inviting students to briefly scan the reading, focusing on titles and illustrations. For example, before reading The Explorer’s Handbook: How to Become an Intrepid Traveler (Tolhurst, 1998), Doug asks his students to think about what they know about Vikings and begins listing their responses: They’re fighters, they wear hats with horns on them, it’s the name of a football team, and so on. He points out that they have activated their collective background knowledge and developed a list of vocabulary words associated with Vikings. He then asks them to work in partners to group the words and place them into labeled categories of their own creation, and then discuss their work with another pair. The class reconvenes, and Doug leads the discussion about the categories they have developed and sorts the associated terms. Doug then reminds them that these groupings should give them some ideas about the vocabulary and concepts they are likely to encounter in the reading. After they have completed the reading, they eliminate the vocabulary that did not appear (such as the Minnesota Vikings) and add new terms to the existing categories. In addition, they develop new categories, such as Famous Vikings, and add vocabulary terms like Eric the Red and Leif Erikson. This modeled lesson allows Doug to get his students using the vocabulary orally as they activate background knowledge and make connections. He doesn’t do this for every reading, rather encourages them to do it in their minds.
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