Monday, February 2, 2015

Teaching Vocabulary

Ahhh, vocabulary.

When I think of my original content area, English, I think it poses particular challenges. For instance, Harmon Wood and Hedrick recommend choosing words that are thematically related. But when you stories or informational texts in English, a lot of words are not thematically related. For instance, stories by Ray Bradbury include words such as apparatus, gait, levity, and other words that might be unfamiliar to middle school students, yet the words do not relate to each other in the same way as "plant cell," "chloroplast," and "ribosome" in biology. 

So what do you do? Well, when planning a vocabulary unit in English, I think it's important to plan around the big words that students will have to return to several times. These words might include "style," "tone," "mood," "imagery" and so forth. 

To be honest, when I read stories, I can often understand them very well when I don't understand just one word. Harmon, Wood, and Hedrick make this point too. There is no way that I could understand a mathematics definition without understanding the word "reciprocal," or that I could understand a biology text without understanding the word "photosynthesis," but I could very easily understand a story without understanding the word "gait." 

So perhaps the English teacher could skip the word all together, if it's not important to the story. Or if it is, the teacher can model how to look up words using online resources, dictionaries, and glossaries. Dictionaries are not effective for teaching in-depth, rich, conceptual understandings of words and their applications, but they are okay for words that are peripheral to the unit. For instance, if a mathematics teacher just said, "look reciprocal up in the glossary," I don't think her students would get anything out of that, and they wouldn't know how to divide fractions any better than they did before. 

The question is: Is this word important to the unit? If so, then it's worth spending time to do vocabulary activities on that word! If not, then superficial activities, such as looking up the word in the glossary, can suffice.

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