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How should we teach vocabulary?

Published on: Thursday 3rd September 2020

Posted in:  By Katy Parkinson

There is not one single educator who does not teach vocabulary; I am 100% sure about that, we all do it. However, too many of our students are underachieving due to poor vocabulary skills. I am also 100% sure about that.

So, what is going wrong? We are teaching vocabulary but… they are not learning it?

This would suggest our teaching of vocabulary is not effective.

If I think about my own first few years in teaching, I truly believed I was teaching vocabulary. I knew I needed to teach it because I understood how important it was for my students. My classroom walls were adorned with word displays which I refreshed regularly to include words from the topic I was currently teaching. We discussed words, I provided word definitions, word searches and I encouraged them to use dictionaries and textbook glossaries. Students also compiled personalised word lists in the back of their planners. I thought I had it cracked! But sadly, I hadn’t.

I knew I hadn’t because my students were still struggling with vocabulary and although I realised my teaching strategies were not working, I continued with them for several years because I honestly didn’t know what else I could do.

But why don’t these activities improve students’ vocabulary? Is it because too many teachers are bombarding students with too many new words and students are in fact suffering from cognitive over-load? Possibly.

Imagine this –

Jenny is a 14-year-old student from a socially disadvantaged family. She has always worked hard in school and is very conscientious. She has been taught in middle sets and is a good reader, but she is now beginning to find the language skill required to access the curriculum quite challenging.

Jenny’s timetable for Monday looks like this and here is a list of 15 new words from across the subject areas for her to learn, understand and remember.

Period 1 History – conspirator, empathy, interdependence
Period 2 Mathematics – equivalence, simultaneous, perpendicular
Period 3 Science – respiration, pathogen, suspension
Period 4 Citizenship – inspire, sympathy, symbolic
Period 5 Geography – equidistant, ecosystem, expiration

If Jenny is to understand and, more importantly, remember them, her teachers will need to explicitly teach these words not just introduce or expose her to them.

So, two problems have now arisen:

1. Teaching individual words takes up too much teaching time so teachers may be reluctant to teach them, but the students need the teaching.

2. Remembering lots of random individual words is very difficult to achieve. Words need to be taught several times before there is any likelihood that students will remember them. So, if Jenny isn’t given the opportunity to revisit this new vocabulary there is a real danger Jenny will become overwhelmed and give up trying.

One conversation I had with a year 8 student really sticks in my mind when I think about this. He was a member of my small intervention group and we were moving on from decoding words to the understanding of words. The word happened to be ‘evaluation’ which was read correctly but when I asked the group what the word meant no one could tell me. Then slowly one student started to think about it and said:

“Oh, wait a minute; we DO evaluations in Tech. Lessons.”

“Great, so what are you doing in your Tech. lessons?”

“Well… we sort of write about it.”

The question I asked myself was, how many times have these students heard this word in Technology lessons and what was the quality of their evaluations if they did not understand that key term?

We do need to teach the words explicitly and students need to revisit that word several times, but teachers don’t have time to do this. So, what can we do about it?

Firstly, stop focusing on teaching individual words; this is a waste of time. Focus instead on teaching the links between words or, even better, encourage students to find the links for themselves.

They love it. I remember one student saying that once he was shown how to look for clues within words, “I feel like Inspector Clouseau!’’ Another said, “I didn’t know words gave you clues to their meaning.”

When students are provided with appropriate scaffolding they start to understand how language works and when then they can do that, they are able not just to understand and remember those words but they can analyse and gain the meaning of other new, unfamiliar words by themselves without the teacher input and that is the important part ‘by themselves without teacher input’.

The scaffolding I refer to is the knowledge of prefixes, stems and suffixes.

If teachers routinely focus their attention on the definitions of the prefixes and stems contained within their subject specific words, they will soon begin to reduce the overall teaching time required to teach individual words (remember this method doesn’t work) because the students will begin to self-teach.

When you have a spare minute, see how many words you can link to the most common prefixes, stems and suffixes that Jenny came across on Monday and see how many times you would be able to get her to revisit the same affix.

con – together/with
em – in
inter – among/between
equi – equal
sim/sym/syn – together/with
in – in
sus – under/below
eco – home
ex – out/from
pend – hang
spir – to breathe
path – feeling/disease

If I was teaching the word ‘contraction’ in a science lesson this is the way I would approach it.

I would have the word displayed and ask the students to call out words that start with ‘con’. I would expect to hear words such as conversation, container, context, conduct, misconduct, connect, etc. Then I would ask them to work out the link between those words for themselves.

Next, I would ask for words that contain ‘tract’ so for example extraction, protracted, abstract, distract, attraction, tractor. As soon as the word tractor is said I would ask them what a tractor does to a trailer and expect them to say it pulls or drags it. That is what tract means; it means to pull or drag.

If we are ever to close this vocabulary gap, we are going to have to seriously grasp the nettle and start to teach it differently.

If we don’t, we will still be talking about the vocabulary gap for years to come. Words displayed on walls, dictionary work, using planners and glossaries are useful but they are not effective methods for teaching vocabulary.

This means we must provide support, training and resources for our teachers before they can support their students. I can see no short cut – or can I?

Lexonik can provide whole school CPD training on how to teach vocabulary, explaining how to embed it across all curriculum areas. Later this term, we will be launching our new online resource for all staff to access and use with students. It covers everything I have mentioned at a click of a button. It will provide the word, its definition, the definition to the affixes and stems and make links to other words across other subject areas. So, it’s a lot more than just a bank of academic words, it teaches students a methodology that allows them to develop their own vocabulary, regardless of where their starting point is.

It will instantly upskill teachers who may feel vulnerable about their own knowledge of word origins (everything is provided), allowing them to effectively teach their students a methodology which empowers them to develop their own vocabulary without teacher input.

Independent learning at its best!

Katy Parkinson

Founder Director, Lexonik

If you would like to find out more about how we could support you in your drive to improve your students’ vocabulary skills, please get in touch.

01642 424298 [email protected]