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Teaching Vocabulary Takes More Than Just Talking About Words During Read-Aloud

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“There just isn’t enough time in the day to teach everything our students need to know.” This is a common refrain among teachers, especially in elementary grades where we are required to teach content from all subject areas. That time squeeze causes some of us to ignore important components of literacy. Explicit vocabulary instruction is one of them. But we’ve got to find ways to stop ignoring it. Academic vocabulary is linked to proficiency in reading comprehension, so it’s definitely something we should not be overlooking.

I’ve been working on my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. Part of that work has been researching the components of effective vocabulary instruction, which has given me some great ideas for reorienting my own teaching.

As teachers, we have some misconceptions about vocabulary. Many of us think, “If I discuss the target words during our read-aloud, I’ve effectively taught new vocabulary!” But that’s not true. Research shows that effective vocabulary instruction requires an explicit, multifaceted approach. This means that we need to incorporate many opportunities throughout the day to help students retain this new information. Hearing words during a read-aloud is just not enough. We also need to make sure our students get repeated exposure to vocabulary words across different texts, repeatedly, over time.

In my 1st grade classroom, I use our read-alouds to introduce our weekly vocabulary words. Before reading, I pre-select five to seven words from the text that students really need to fully comprehend the text. I write the words on an anchor chart along with student-friendly definitions.

Next, I model application by using the words in sentences orally. I then ask students to turn and talk with a partner to come up with their own. During the reading, I make sure to stop and notice how the target words are used in the text. After reading, we reflect on what we read, and I make a point to give praise when students use a vocabulary word in their reflections.

I include target vocabulary words in every guided reading group. Doing so may take 30 seconds, or 10 minutes. Some days I ask students to create silly sentences. Other days, we read a poem or listen to a song. Just do something to include vocabulary instruction during guided reading! More interaction with the target words will help students to recall and apply them in the future.

Strategies for Determining Meaning

I try to use our words across content areas as well. My students are always delighted when I refer to our literacy anchor chart during math lessons. I make sure to keep my chart visible throughout the week so students can include words during writing, or when talking with their peers.

Teaching vocabulary strategies is another component of my vocabulary instruction. In whole and small groups, I explicitly model what I do when I am reading and come across an unfamiliar word. One strategy that is beneficial for text comprehension is using context clues. If I get stuck on a word that I don’t know the meaning of, I just skip over it and read the rest of the sentence. If that is still not helpful, I may read the sentence before and after to see if that helps me make sense of it.

Another strategy I use is teaching students how to understand morphology: how words are formed. For example, the prefix bi- means “two.” In the word “bilingual,” it means “using or knowing two languages.” If students come across a word they’re aren’t familiar with, but they can identify parts of the word, this can help them to understand its meaning. This strategy is typically used more often in upper elementary, but I’ve found it helpful with my 1st graders.

Vocabulary acquisition can take time and patience, but it’s essential that students acquire the skills and strategies to independently interpret the meaning of texts. Most students don’t come into the classroom with a robust vocabulary, so it’s up to us to help them develop one.

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