Increasing Students’ Vocabulary: Word Study in Action

Do you remember studying for the ACT or GRE? Did you buy the vocabulary flashcards or make your own? I remember the summer of 2009 as “The One With the GRE Flashcards” because I took them everywhere and reviewed them in every spare moment. Whether it was by the pool, in the DMV, at the doctor’s office, or at my kitchen table, my anxiety about memorizing the vocabulary words continued to increase. I remember wishing I had received better vocabulary instruction in school. The reality is, in many places, we still aren’t YET teaching vocabulary, or word study, well. The key word here is: YET.

Background Information

The “30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” is a research study, by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, whose gist is that by age 3, children growing up in impoverished households have heard 30 million fewer words than kids growing up in affluent households. This study has since been cited thousands of times; however, in the past couple of years, their findings have become quite debatable due to the small number of families they studied and inconsistency along lines of race. There have been multiple attempts to replicate the original study, and all have failed at finding such large a gap. The studies have still found that a “word gap” does exist, but that the difference is about 4 million words by the age of 4.

So what?

What does this mean for us, as educators? It means we still need to address the “aren’t YET teaching vocabulary, or word study, well.” In Teach Like A Champion 2.0, Doug Lemov writes, “Whereas good teachers get students to develop effective right answers using terms they are already comfortable with (‘Volume is the amount of space something takes up’), great teachers get them to use precise technical vocabulary they’re developing comfort with (‘Volume refers to the cubic units of space an object occupies’). This response expands student vocabularies and builds comfort with the terms students will need when they compete in college.” 

Now what?

  1. Incorporate vocabulary instruction in every class, every day.
    1. This begins addressing the word gap.
    2. This aids in reading comprehension for all subjects.
    3. This helps combat “the Matthew Effect” (Aka: Strong readers read more and thus get better.  Poor readers shy away from reading and thus continue to struggle with reading. The gap widens.)
    4. This helps prepare students for gate-keeping exams (i.e., AP exams, ACT, SAT, GRE).
  2. Tier 1.pngFocus most of your instruction on Tier 2 and Tier 3 words.
    1. Tier 2 examples: persistent, coincidence, absurd, industrious
    2. Tier 3 examples: isotope, peninsula, quadrilateral
  3. Good vocabulary instruction should:
    1. Teach the meaning of most essential words in text.
    2. Apply a variety of strategies for teaching word meanings.
    3. Make connections between words and new concepts.
    4. Encourage using new words in oral and written communication without a teacher prompt. (see example below)

Example: When students would find one of our vocabulary words in a book or article they were reading, they would show a teacher. The teacher would then ask them to explain the word in context. If the student explained it correctly, we wrote the word on a sticker label and they could place it on their forehead. Some days, students entire foreheads were covered in vocabulary words! They took such pride showing the words they knew!

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meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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