Vocabulary Instruction: Why You Should Make Time for It
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More often than not, it feels as though there is never enough time to teach all I want to teach in a given day. Once my class comes in and we all get settled, the first thing I want to do is immediately dive into our books so I can make sure we stay on track and don’t get too far behind on pacing. Often, though, when I would have students read out loud or when I would confer with them, I would hear them get stuck on various words or they would ask me what different words meant when reading independently. For awhile I thought simply giving them a quick definition on the spot or telling them to “read around the word” in order to figure it out would be enough for them to get through the reading. But soon I realized that I wanted my students to do more than just “get through”. I wanted my students to not only know the meanings of these words, but also to know how to use them in their own writing. I wanted these words to be a part of their personal vocabularies. If this was going to happen, I had to figure out a way to fit vocabulary instruction into our day.

The fact of the matter is, teaching vocabulary is no longer a “nice to have” in our daily instruction. Research shows that students need to learn forty-three thousand words on average to be on track to graduate college. Having a robust vocabulary is a key pillar to strong reading achievement. In the upper grades especially, there is a strong correlation between vocabulary and reading comprehension. As children get older their reading comprehension becomes more dependent on knowing the meanings of words. This still begs the question: what’s the best way to teach vocabulary and how do we make the time?

A resource I often refer to is “Bringing Words to Life” by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan. In this book you will find everything you need in order to create robust vocabulary instruction. One thing I learned from this book is that teaching vocabulary doesn’t have to be long or arduous. It can actually be relatively quick and highly engaging for kids.

For example, at the start of class I would introduce a small set of words (no more than 5) and have my students write down the “student friendly” definitions in their vocabulary notebooks. Then, throughout the week, I would spend about 7 minutes engaging them in activities that helped them to develop a stronger understanding of the meanings of the words and how to use them. These activities ranged from brief discussions to actual games. One game I learned from Beck, et. al is called “Beat the Clock”, where students are given 90 seconds to complete 14 items like the ones below:

  • Shrill sounds can hurt your ears: True or False
  • Gregarious people would rather be alone: True or False
  • It might be hard to have a conversation where there’s commotion: True or False
  • Frank people keep their thoughts to themselves: True or False

After the 90 seconds students would pass their papers to peers and tally up their scores. The amount of excitement they felt when they were able to improve their scores from previous weeks is truly heartwarming. They often beg to play the game outside of class time!

Of course, choosing 10-12 words a week to practice with students will not be enough to help ensure students develop strong vocabularies. In his book, “Reading Reconsidered”, Doug Lemov and his team share a number of ways teachers can implicitly teach vocabulary in order to increase the rate at which students learn and absorb new words.

While ensuring my students have enough time to read their books in class is important, taking the time to focus on teaching vocabulary is just as valuable. By helping them to learn new words and teaching them how to apply those words in increasingly complex situations, we ensure all our students are able to experience all the beauty that exists within literature.

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