How Children Learn Vocabulary – Bringing Words to Life, Part 1

One of the constant challenges of international school teaching is having a large number of students who might use limited English outside of school. Depending on your situation, you could have students with both parents as native English speakers, or both parents speaking a non-English mother tongue, or half and half. Some students speak their mother tongue with their parents and English with their siblings. Some speak one language with their mom, another language with their dad, and English at school (and sometimes you can throw in lessons or classes in the host country language). In any given class, you will most likely have combinations of all of the above scenarios.

Being bilingual or trilingual will give our students great advantages in the future, but less English exposure means that all teachers need to emphasize vocabulary development. This is not an issue limited to international education. When I started my teaching career in inner city Detroit, I was aware of the research showing significant deficiencies in language exposure for children growing up in poverty. In the National Reading Panel’s review of 45 different studies of vocabulary instruction (see pages 23-27), they found significant links between vocabulary instruction and reading achievement.

bringing words

Very few educators or parents would argue against the idea of vocabulary development in children. How then, shall we best help our students develop their vocabularies? I’m glad you asked. The best method of vocabulary instruction that I’ve found is laid out in the book Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan. I’ve been using their methods of vocabulary instruction for more than half a decade, and If there’s one thing you should take away from this blog post, it’s that you should read this book. I will try to summarize the ideas here, but I will keep coming back to the same theme: read the book.

The authors promote the idea of “robust vocabulary instruction.” Giving students a dictionary and skills to look up words in not enough—students must have opportunities to learn the word (with simple definitions), see it in multiple contexts, and apply it on their own. Here is a lightning round of important ideas coming from the book:

Context isn’t enough

One of the first ideas the authors discuss is that simply reading a lot and learning new words from context is not sufficient for true understanding of new vocabulary. The problem is that there are several different types of context:

  • Misdirective contexts lead the reader the incorrect meaning of the word.
  • Nondirective contexts do not give the reader enough information to figure out the meaning of the word.
  • General contexts allow the reader to put the word in a certain category, but it is not specific enough.
  • Directive contexts, finally, lead readers to an accurate meaning of the word.

With so many contexts lacking specificity, or even misleading the reader, it is clear that direct instruction is the best way for students to learn new words. The next question is which words should students learn.

Tier one, two and three words

photoNow that we’ve determined the importance of direct vocabulary instruction, what words should we teach? Beck and McKeown have divided words into three tiers. The first tier is made up of basic words that are usually learned without instruction (for example: desk, write, sad, adult, etc.). The third tier contains specialized words which are important only within a certain domain (for example: photosynthesis, polyhedron, crevasse, etc.). The second tier, where we want to focus our attention, consists of words that are used frequently in literature and mature conversation and can be applied generally to different situations (for example: admire, mischievous, smother, unique, etc.). These words will be most productive for our students.

Student-friendly definitions

Anyone who has asked a child to look up a word in the dictionary is aware of the flaws of dictionary definitions. In some cases, the student may get it, but he is often just as confused as he was before looking up the word. The authors of Bringing Words to Life suggest using “student-friendly explanations” as opposed to dictionary definitions. Giving multiple, directive contexts (ie. good examples) is also important.

Let’s look at an example for the word “tender.” Here’s what your macbook’s dictionary would give you:

tender 1 |ˈtendər|
adjective (tenderer, tenderest)
1 showing gentleness and concern or sympathy: he was being so kind and tender.• [ predic. ] (tender of) archaic solicitous of; concerned for: be tender of a lady’s reputation.
2 (of food) easy to cut or chew; not tough: tender green beans.
• (of a plant) easily injured by severe weather and therefore needing protection.
• (of a part of the body) sensitive to pain: the pale, tender skin of her forearm.
• young, immature, and vulnerable: at the tender age of five.
• requiring tact or careful handling: the issue of conscription was a particularly tender one.
• Nautical (of a ship) leaning or readily inclined to roll in response to the wind.

That’s just one of the definitions. On the other had, here is my student friendly explanation:

tender – soft; gentle

It is not as detailed, but initially, it is better to teach one meaning of the word until the students have mastered it. For more examples of student friendly definitions, check out the videos on my students’ website. In my next post, I will provide a list of around 350 tier 2 words (with student-friendly definitions) that I have used.

Coming Soon

Despite pouring multiple hours into this blog post, there is still a lot to be covered, so I will break it into two parts. In my next post, I will cover sources of words and some specific instructional techniques that I use.

In the meantime, here is an interview with one of the authors, Isabel Beck (link if the embed doesn’t work):

The final question you may be asking, as you read this “ed tech” blog, is where does the technology come in? I’ll get to that eventually, but when students are learning new words, thinking about the SAMR model, I’m not sure technology is that necessary. I use shared google documents and spreadsheets with my students, but paper and pencil do a fine job for all of this.

Once my students have mastered new words, however, we get into all sorts of fun technology: iPads, doodlecast, youtube editor, and google sites, all of which I’ve written about on this blog.

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One Response to How Children Learn Vocabulary – Bringing Words to Life, Part 1

  1. Kim Cofino says:

    I love that you’re connecting back to your “roots” as an educator with this project – clearly this is an element that is essential to learning in your classroom and that will make the technology component even better.

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