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The Vocabulary Imperative: Not Just ‘More’ Words, But More Functional Words

By Laura Hill-Bonnet — July 31, 2013 5 min read

Words. Schools are swimming in them. Children are swimming in them too, and potentially drowning in them. A recent Education Week article discussed the need for students to “learn more words,” stating that "[v]ocabulary is a deceptively simple literacy skill, but [one] which has proved frustratingly difficult to address.” Indeed, a researcher cited in the article said she’d found “a very haphazard approach” to teaching vocabulary in schools—"vocabulary choices were not based on frequency, not based on the supporting academic words children need to know,” nor were they based “content-rich words.”

So which words should you teach? When? Where? How? It is not enough to teach more words, or even just “content-rich words.” Teachers need a driving framework that connects words to the lived experiences of children both in and out of the classroom.

As an instructor in the Stanford Teacher Education Program, part of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, I ask teacher candidates to employ a “functional linguistics approach,” based on the work of M.A.K. Halliday and others. With this approach, teachers can connect vocabulary to students’ lives in the classroom by asking, “What do I want my students to do with the language?”

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Are students analyzing data and asking questions or are they explaining their process in solving a problem? Are they arguing a specific point or are they comparing two different perspectives? The verbs in these questions (i.e., analyze, ask, explain, compare) are important because verbs indicate what we do when we speak, listen, read, or write. Language serves a purpose and has a specific function. By analyzing the verbs in the learning objectives of their lessons, teachers can more easily identify those functions.

After identifying the underlying function of the language, teachers may then focus on teaching the specific words (linguistic forms) that best suit that function. They can then provide students with opportunities to practice and become fluent in those functions. For example, words used to meet the objective “students will describe characteristics of an ecosystem” will not sound the same as those used in “students will make a prediction about which ecosystem is in greater danger.” The first function is “to describe,” so a student response should be something like, “In the desert it is hot and dry and plants such as cacti have adapted to live there.” In this case, the forms that students need are adjectives that describe characteristics, i.e., “hot” and “dry” or examples starting with “such as.”

The function in the second example is “to predict” and students might be expected to respond with something like, “I predict that if there were a drought, then the desert plants would be more likely to survive because they are better adapted to live without water.” In this example, students will need the forms necessary to perform a prediction, such as “I predict,” “if … then,” or “more likely.” In both cases, they need access to content-specific vocabulary such as “desert, wetland, plant, adaptation, and condition.” But with a functional linguistics approach, not only is the content-specific vocabulary explicitly taught within a determined context, but the function-specific linguistic forms (e.g. “such as,” “if … then,” “more likely”) are directly taught as well. This approach makes language development more targeted, directed, and purposeful.

Common-Core Expectations

With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, teachers will need to closely consider vocabulary development from such a functional perspective for a couple of different reasons. First, the new standards will be challenging for students learning academic English due to the focus on linguistically demanding tasks such as argumentation and persuasion. Even a quick review of the standards reveals that verbs such as “analyze, justify, persuade, critique, interpret, and predict” dominate what students and teachers will be held accountable for. From this common-core/functional perspective, vocabulary development goes beyond the learning of words and becomes the learning of a new language: the language of analyzing, justifying, persuading, contrasting, critiquing, interpreting, and predicting. And with this language, students will need greater access to words that help them do those tasks—like “such as,” “more likely,” and “if … then.”

Secondly, this functional perspective requires teachers to know much more than a handful of vocabulary strategies or have access to the newest scripted English-language development curriculum to meet the common core. Teachers should understand how the language required to meet the new standards works in order to understand how how to teach something such as “argumentation.” In other words, they need to know not only “what” to argue (a specific perspective, for example), but also how to argue: where to put stress and emphasis on words, how to adapt and conjugate words to fit the context and point of view, and how to construct complex and cohesive sentences to get a point across. With this level of linguistic understanding, teachers would be better equipped to explain, model, and guide students through the complex maze of interactions, texts, and writing assignments they encounter in schools.

But here’s the rub: Too often teachers have not been prepared with the skills to determine the linguistic demands of what they’re asking students to do. They may default to teaching the content-specific words and forget to pay close attention to the grammatical structures needed to do something like “argue.” My point is that teachers need adequate training in working with the language of instruction in classrooms (often English) as well as an underlying framework for teaching language that highlights the purposes of using language. Teacher-preparation programs and professional-development experiences need to build more explicit support for teachers to develop a functional linguistic approach to teaching language used in classrooms. This would succeed in moving the field of language learning away from a quantitative focus on “more words,” and toward a more practical perspective of “which words and for what purpose?”

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