Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4-12


Janet Allen begins her book with a quote from Baumann and Kameenui that summarizes not only vocabulary, but language arts, teaching, and life in general. “We know too much to say we know too little, and we know too little to say that we know enough.” Amen, research team, amen! Aside from letting me know that I actually know nothing, Allen gave me insight on how to teach vocabulary and why it is necessary to teach vocabulary.

We use the words that we actually hear others say, the media say, and words that we actually read. Early on, Allen relates a story about how several times she used the term “delayed gratification” in class and a few weeks later she heard one of her students use it while chastising a fellow student. This real life example makes sense. In Special Methods I’ve learned that when it comes to education, if it’s not something that the average person would plausibly do in real life, then it’s probably not going to go over well in the classroom, or be worthwhile. In real life, do we run to the nearest dictionary in order to look up a word in our book? No. We either ignore it or pull out our devices and type it into Google. So why do we tell kids to do just that in the classroom? Do we want to do something if it’s hard and we don’t enjoy it? Of course not! So how can we expect students to read (and especially read more complex literature), have “an inquisitiveness about word meanings and derivations”, or have “a more diverse and richer use of language in speech and writing” if we don’t use realistic methods for teaching vocabulary?

Reading and vocab work hand in hand. In order to enjoy and understand what we read, we must be able to comprehend what we read. Having a strong vocabulary affects comprehension. On the other hand, “reading is the single most important factor in increased word knowledge.” Without the continued work on one skill we cannot have the other.

Instead of the drill and kill method for vocabulary instruction, Allen recommends coming at teaching vocab in a number of more productive ways such as repeating words in various contexts, describing the words, supporting words with visuals, connecting words with students’ lives, extending words with anecdotes, making associations, comparing and contrasting words, and rephrasing sentences. Play word games! Everyone loves hangman. Invest in Pictionary, Scrabble, or let your students play Words with Friends! Just remember, vocabulary is important, but so also is engaging lessons about it. If we continue to assign leveled vocab books with random words that the students will forget 30 seconds later, then why do we bother to teach at all?


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