Vocabulary in English/Language Arts Classrooms (page 2)
Two primary goals of reading novels, short stories, plays, and poetry is to gain insights into the human condition and to participate vicariously in the text worlds authors create. To accomplish these goals, readers must understand the words they encounter. Understanding vocabulary, then, is the means to the end of literary insights and experiences. Understanding vocabulary is not the end.
Effective English teachers perform a balancing act when addressing vocabulary: they work at developing word understandings while keeping those understandings subservient to the larger purposes for which students read. They achieve balance before students read by teaching the specific word meanings needed to grasp overall passage meanings. Effective English teachers achieve balance after reading by focusing attention on the key words that elicited the messages and experiences students gained. This balancing act fits situations involving single passages as well as multiple passages.
Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind, is a good novel to consider effective ways to promote vocabulary when students are reading a single passage. Vocabulary learning readily can be folded into the study of this piece of literature.
Before students read Shabanu, introducing unfamiliar words that are crucial to understanding a section but are not fully explained is a good way to balance vocabulary and passage understandings. To illustrate, desert oases play a large role in Shabanu. Readers who lack clear and extensive understandings of this term risk substantial difficulties with the novel because it assumes readers already know about oases. Presenting the word in depth to students before they read the book is appropriate. As part of the introduction to the novel, you display oasis before the class and call attention to its pronunciation, then develop in-depth knowledge of its meaning. You ask students to call up what they already know about oases, present pictures and videos of them, and create analogies. You connect this individual term to the overall novel by explaining how it is a central part of the setting.
Folding vocabulary instruction into the study of Shabanu also can be done in the during- and after-reading phases. Asking students, “What is the most important word in this section?” and discussing their choices goes far in promoting active comprehension and in-depth vocabulary learning. A student who selects storm for the scene in which Shabanu’s grandfather dies might focus on the denotations and connotations of this word. What exactly is a storm? Does storm refer to a physical weather disturbance or to characters’ turmoil? How can personal relationships or the course of one’s life be stormy?
If students are maintaining response journals for Shabanu, some of the writing prompts can highlight vocabulary. Offering a menu of prompts allows readers to select a vocabulary response format they find most productive. For instance, students illustrate the meanings of three words from a chapter (e.g., show people wearing chadors and turbans or having their bodies painted with henna). They present word families (pilgrim, pilgrimage; nomad, nomadic). They maintain a list of “words I should learn more about” for weekly follow-ups, or they complete vocabulary self-assessment scales of words that peers select. Students maintain a “language gems” section in their journals for recording vivid comparisons, strong verbs, and other phrases they find compelling.
A standard recommended practice for increasing vocabularies is for students to read widely in materials that are within their capabilities. This recommendation is based in part on realizations of the inefficiency of teaching isolated terms in a word-by-word fashion. A large volume of reading provides students opportunities to encounter the thousands of new terms they need to develop their vocabularies.
English teachers who stimulate their students to read widely for pleasure and for academics certainly assist vocabulary development, but additional actions are needed to enhance the impact of this practice. Because it is impossible to introduce unfamiliar words that are crucial to understanding a section when each student selects his or her own materials, focusing on vocabulary in the during and after phases of self-selected reading is appropriate.
A good way to incorporate word study while students are reading on their own is to have them maintain journals with a section devoted to vocabulary. Students select their own materials for silent reading, and they enter into their journals sections of text that contain words or phrases they find appealing, that they want to remember, and that they believe deserve sharing with classmates. They might cite author, title, and page number for each section they record. About once a week students share what they have recorded, and they engage their peers in a discussion of the passage context and meaningful word parts (if any) that determine the word’s meaning. Students might first meet in groups to nominate one they consider most important for class consideration. When group representatives present their words to the class, they explain why they believe others should know them by articulating their contribution to the unit of study being conducted. Favorite sections might be gathered, posted on a bulletin board, and published every few weeks in a class anthology.
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