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Wednesday, 15 August 2018

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Vocabulary Learning for Older Students

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist


Knowledge of vocabulary is highly correlated with academic success. Students with larger vocabularies demonstrate higher levels of reading comprehension and perform better on many of the kinds of achievement valued in schools.

Though building a strong vocabulary is a continuous exercise, explicit vocabulary instruction often stops in late elementary school, and the instruction that does take place is often restricted to a very narrow range of learning experiences.

One study found that vocabulary learning used in upper-elementary classrooms consisted largely of teachers mentioning words, giving synonyms for target words, or assigning lists of words to be looked up in the dictionary and learned. Unfortunately, due to the complex nature of word learning, these strategies are not particularly effective.

Really knowing a word means that we are able to do things with it, not just recall a definition learned by rote. In order to be able to actually transfer our knowledge of a word to the kind of situations where we will use it, our concept of the word needs to be connected to a mental schema and to our prior experience. It also needs to be associated with other words in our mental lexicon.

Far from being simply about definitions or synonyms, word learning is about developing an array of conceptual connections to the word over time. So what kind of learning experiences are likely to facilitate this?

Evelyn Ford-Connors and Jeanne Paratore (2015) from Boston University conducted a qualitative research synthesis that points to some of the things we can do. They synthesized 33 different studies looking for both learning experiences that effectively support word learning and the type of classroom contexts teachers create to effectively support vocabulary development.

What works?
Ford-Connors and Paratore found that the following types of learning experiences effectively supported word learning:

• Wide Reading – Effective because words are introduced in a meaningful context and associated with the building of knowledge networks. However, the skills a reader brings to the task greatly influence their ability to infer word meanings from texts, and thus build vocabulary through reading.

• Context Clues – The most effective instruction here explicitly taught students how to examine words and sentences before and after the unknown word, looking for relationships between ideas across both those sentences and the text as a whole.

• Morphological Analysis – As students progress through school, more and more of the words they encounter are morphologically complex, so understanding the meanings of parts of words becomes increasingly important.

• Awareness of Polysemy – Polysemous words have more than one related sense, and understanding these improves students’ ability to make meaning.

• Developing Word Consciousness – Beyond understanding the definitional meaning of a word, students need to understand how words can transform into different parts of speech and the effect the word’s role in the sentence may have on its meaning. They also need to have an awareness of the nuances of word choice and why one word may express a particular meaning better than another in a particular context.

• Direct Instruction of Individual Words – While effective, this strategy is more powerful when combined with instruction in some of the above strategies.

Ford-Connors and Paratore found that classroom discussion was an extremely effective context for developing vocabulary because it provides students with opportunities to both hear and use words in appropriate contexts, making connections and relationships as they build knowledge. Discussion also provided opportunities to explicitly discuss words and word choice, allowing for an exploration of relationships between words and ideas. The most productive discussions involved:

• framing by the teacher, including teachers using open-ended, cognitively challenging questions

• extended student talk

• students grappling with ideas, identifying underlying ideas and themes, and moving beyond literal interpretations

• teachers pushing students to justify claims with evidence and connect their ideas to either a shared text or the ideas expressed by classmates

• high levels of teacher uptake of student ideas, including teachers recasting student ideas using discipline-specific vocabulary and teachers pushing students to explain their ideas fully using “why” and “what does this tell us about” questions

• meta comments from teachers that summarize important ideas and maintain focus

• teachers repeating key words and emphasizing their relationship to the ideas

What might this mean for our classrooms?
Overall, a greater focus on vocabulary beyond early elementary classrooms using some of these strategies seems not only useful, but highly necessary. Further, creating the opportunities to hear, use, and discuss new words through rich discussion-based learning provides the context in which students can develop the rich, connected networks that further vocabulary learning.

Ford-Connors, E., & Paratore, J. 2015. “Vocabulary Instruction in Fifth Grade and Beyond.” Review of Educational Research 85 no. 1: 50–91.

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