Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Building Vocabulary

How many English words do you think you know? Is it 3,000 words, 17,000 words, or 100,000 words?

If you are a native or experienced English speaker, you probably know roughly 17,000 unique words, give or take a few thousand. Feeling impressed with yourself now? After all, when you first started talking (or first learned English), you could only say a few words. Now you know thousands and thousands.

Does this significant growth in your vocabulary happen all on its own? While it may seem like you just came to know all of these words naturally, a lot happened to get you to this point. Teachers and parents play a big role in supporting this outcome in youth.

In this lesson, you’ll learn what the research says about effectively teaching vocabulary. We’ll focus on four key recommendations from the work of education professors and former classroom teachers Camille L. Z. Blachowicz and Peter Fisher as published in Education Leadership in 2004.

Word Play

Researchers have worked hard to identify best practices for improving students’ vocabularies. But guess what? They want you to play! That is, they want you to give students opportunities to play with words. Word games can range from traditional crossword puzzles to creative, spontaneous ideas for highlighting new words. One example, given by Blachowicz and Fisher, is a word wall, where students are encouraged and even given points of some kind when they write a new word they have learned on the wall and explain where they have seen or heard the word.

A word wall is also a good example of personalizing word learning. This means that, as a teacher, you aim to connect word meanings to a student’s experiences. For example, a teacher who wants to teach the word ”permeate” might ask the students to consider past experiences that involve the meaning of this word. Or the teacher could ask students to draw a scenario involving something that ”permeates” an area.

The STAR Model

Explicit instruction involves clearly explaining the goals of a structured activity and then actively engaging students in the activity. The particular explicit instruction approach highlighted by Blachowicz and Fisher is known as the STAR model.

  • The S in STAR is for select, meaning choose which words you want to teach.
  • T is for teach, using any one of many possible methods. For example, one way to teach would be to have students learn the meaning of a word from the dictionary definition, while another way is to have a student read a passage that includes that word and find the meaning from its context.
  • A means activate, or involve students in the activities such as discussions and writing assignments in which they use the new words they’ve been taught. This step can also get creative. Think charades or acting out a scene related to a particular word.
  • Finally, R stand for revisit, which refers to finding ways to come back to the new words in later activities so that students have a chance to commit the new words to memory for the long-run.

Independent Problem-Solving

Students sometimes end up in situations where they need to find out the meaning of a word on their own. They’re reading on their own, and this time the context of the text doesn’t help them out.

Do they have the skills they need to look that word up? We may not bat an eye at quickly plucking a word’s definition from a dictionary or searching quickly for a definition online. Yet a student will need more guidance. Exactly how do they go about finding a particular word and identifying which of potentially multiple definitions fits the word they are reading or hearing? Teaching students skills they can use independently can give them a big boost.

Reading Alone & Reading Together

Blachowicz and Fisher want you to help students become ”immersed in words.” Imagine students surrounded by opportunities to connect to both the written and spoken word on a regular basis, the number of words they recognize and understand growing ever greater over time.

You probably know that it’s important to read to children as a way to help them develop their vocabulary. Yet this is only the beginning. A student involved in a book club and reading on his or her own, in addition to reading in class and at home (both silently and aloud) are just some ways to surround a student in words.

While literature is one important type of reading, students can also learn from a variety of sources, such as informational material like a website about some area of a student’s interest. Researchers recommend exposing young people to a wide variety of opportunities to learn new words. These same students will grow up to comprehend what they hear and read and to express themselves better in all kinds of life situations.

Lesson Summary

Our vocabulary expands as we grow, in large part, due to the efforts of parents and teachers to immerse a student in words, according to researchers like Blachowicz and Fisher. From word play to explicit instruction to teaching students independent problem-solving skills, teachers can use a variety of activities and source materials to help students learn new words. Remember to personalize learning whenever possible and revisit words to solidify their meaning after they are first taught.

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