The bad news: SAT reading scores have reached an all-time low, and recently released NAEP scores reveal that American students' vocabulary growth is "flat." The good news: It's no longer 2012. It's 2013, a new year, a time to buy gym memberships and to overhaul your vocabulary instruction. Just do it.
Here are a few good vocabulary resolutions that you can put into practice in 2013 that can empower your students to take responsibility for their own vocabulary development.
Hand over the vocabulary scepter.
End the convention of being the only one to assign vocabulary lists in your classroom. Every one of your students has a unique vocabulary, so a one-size-fits-all approach to vocabulary instruction is so 2012. Make 2013 the year when you pass the vocabulary scepter on to your students to choose the words they want to learn. Encourage students to grab text from a reading assignment and make their own word list, and to then whittle down the list to those words they don't know or to those words they think are essential to understanding a text. You can set the guidelines [e.g., create a list with a) 5 words you don't know b) 5 words essential to understanding this author's point of view, and c) 5 words your classmates should learn, etc.], but allow the students to do the word picking. By letting students choose the words, they will be more self-motivated to learn them.
(To read more about Vocabulary Self-Selection, click here.)
Go beyond definitions.
If you teach your students that their vocabulary goal is to memorize a bunch of words and corresponding definitions to pass a quiz next Tuesday, what message are you sending? You are unwittingly implying that understanding words in context and using words in a meaningful way is beside the point. This year, begin showing students that a dictionary definition is a place to start, but that exploring word relationships and usage is the place to end. Reward students for finding the right definition of a word in context. For example, if students run across the use of vet as a verb meaning "to examine carefully," have them identify the correct meaning branch of a Visual Thesaurus word map that fits that particular context.
Also, ask students to paraphrase dictionary definitions into language any 3rd grader would know and to then find example sentences that demonstrate how a word is used in the wild. Here is a sentence example plucked from the Vocabulary.com dictionary page for the word vet showing its use as a verb:
Underwriters are meant to vet clients and work only on offerings that make sense.
—New York Times Nov 20, 2012
And, finally, only after students have explored usage examples, assess their word knowledge by having them use a recently learned word in an original context.
(To read about another activity that pushes students beyond dictionary definitions, click here.)
You don't even have to mention Latin, Greek, or (heaven forbid) Anglo-Norman origins. In 2013, emphasize morphology (word parts) over etymology (word origins). Get students to recognize common patterns in words so that they can approach unfamiliar words with a head start. If your class is discussing socialism, point out that words ending in -ism often represent a philosophical or political doctrine. If the word philanthropy pops up, go on a brief tangent and identify other words containing anthro and phil (e.g., anthropoid, anthropology, bibliophile, philosophy, etc.). These detours into morphology will lead students to recognize English as the mishmash of roots that it is, and to be less intimidated the next time they encounter an unfamiliar word that contains a familiar root.
(To read more about teaching morphology, read this Book Nook excerpt or check out this lesson plan.)
Teach vocabulary through word choice.
Understanding vocabulary is not just a reading skill (even though it is usually categorized that way on standardized exams). Expect students to pay attention to word choice as they write and speak. Take the time to circle a few lackluster or trite words in a student's first draft. Then, ask students to use the Visual Thesaurus to help them find a few better words to replace those stale words. You could even have them write about word choice (e.g., "I replaced the word interesting with riveting because…"). The "I replaced x-word with y-word because" sentence frame will force students to realize that word choice should be deliberate.
(To read more about word choice, click here.)
Practice what you preach.
We all tend to stay in our own vocabulary comfort zones, including teachers — rarely taking risks with hard-to-pronounce words or words that don't come naturally to us. But, if you reveal a little vocabulary vulnerability and risk, then you are creating a classroom environment where word experimentation and word study are encouraged and practiced. If you run across a word you don't know, model for your students how you learn it: by looking it up, by paraphrasing its dictionary definiton, by exploring it in the context of a few sentence examples, and then by using it in an original sentence.
Turning over a new vocabulary instruction leaf in 2013 is not as painful as it might sound. As an adult with an expansive vocabulary, you have already learned how to teach yourself vocabulary. Now, you just need to reveal to your students the little tricks that you use for learning new words. It's not about the distribution of word lists, memorizing definitions, or even standardized reading exams. It's about getting students to realize that they can be in charge of their own vocabulary learning, and that they are not stuck with the same set of words that they knew back in 2012.
Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award.Click here to read other articles by Georgia Scurletis