Five Ways NOT To Teach Vocabulary

(Originally titled “Vocabulary: Five Common Misconceptions”)

 

From the Marshall Memo #444

“When young readers encounter texts that contain too many unfamiliar words, their comprehension suffers,” say Nancy Padak (formerly at Kent State University), Karen Bromley (Binghamton University), Tim Rasinski (Kent State University), and Evangeline Newton (University of Akron) in this Educational Leadership article. “Reading becomes slow, laborious, and frustrating, impeding their learning.” But many teachers go about vocabulary-building the wrong way, they say, falling prey to five misconceptions:

Misconception #1: Definitions do the trick. “Although knowing a word’s definition is important,” say the authors, “it’s not nearly enough.” Students need to learn its multiple dimensions. Take the word cappuccino: structure and pronunciation (four syllables – cap-uh-cheen-o); grammar (a noun, but not a proper noun); semantics (a definition, origins among the Capuchin monks in Italy, who wore light brown robes with white-lined hoods) and the diminutive Italian affix, -ino; cappuccino literally means “little hood”); and its spelling (tricky, with two p’s and two c’s). “When students see a new word in print, use it orally as they talk about it, notice its structure and grammatical function, and learn its spelling, they are well on their way to making the word their own,” say the authors.

Misconception #2: Weekly vocabulary lists are effective. Not so much, say Padak, Bromley, Rasinski, and Newton. This time-honored practice is drudgery for students – and it doesn’t work. A better practice is to listen for interesting or difficult words during oral reading, write them on the board, and use them for vocabulary instruction and word play.

Misconception #3: Teachers should teach all the hard words, especially those printed in bold or italics. Unproductive, say the authors. Cognitive overload! Do students already know the word? Is it essential to understanding the text? Will it appear in future readings?

Focus pre-instruction on no more than 3-4 words per reading selection for primary grades, 5-7 for middle grades. Students should also learn how to find the meaning of words in the glossary or dictionary. 

Misconception #4: The study of Latin and Greek roots is too hard for young learners. Not true, say the authors. Latin and Greek word roots represent simple, familiar, stable concepts (port = carry), and primary-grade students can learn them. “Once students understand the linguistic principle that words with the same roots are related in meaning, they can use words they know to unlock the meaning of new words,” say the authors.

Misconception #5: Word learning is boring. This is true if it consists of writing words ten times, copying definitions, doing worksheets, drilling with flash cards, and Friday tests. But there are lots of ways to make vocabulary-building fun: Scrabble, Boggle, Balderdash, Buzzword, Pictionary, crossword puzzles, word jumbles, and much more online, including:

MindFun: http://mindfun.com/

Gamequarium: http://www.gamequarium.com/spanishvocab.html

Funschool: http://games.funschool.com/

Vocabulary: http://www.vocabulary.co.il/

MyVocabulary: http://www.myvocabulary.com/ 

“Vocabulary: Five Common Misconceptions” by Nancy Padak, Karen Bromley, Tim Rasinski, and Evangeline Newton in Educational Leadership, June 2012 (Vol. 69, online only), http://www.ascd.org; the authors can be reached at npadak@kent.edu, kbromley@binghamton.edu, trasinsk@kent.edu, and enewton@uakron.edu

 

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