What should content-area teachers know about vocabulary instruction?
Page 5: Helping Students Actively Process Vocabulary
Reading in the content areas requires a deeper level of understanding than simply learning the definitions of vocabulary terms. If students are to learn a new term in more than a cursory way, they must actively process the word and its meaning. Teachers can help students to do this by:
Fostering discussions about new vocabulary terms, which provides teachers the opportunity to model those terms and students time to practice their use
Using graphic organizers for vocabulary to provide a structure for discussion and to guide students in examining important facets of the word and its relationship to other terms
Any visual aid designed to help students organize and comprehend substantial amounts of content information.
Drawing students’ awareness to the different features of words (e.g., meaningful units or morphemes, including prefixes, roots, and suffixes)
Example: The letter s is a morpheme when added to the end of a word to make it plural. This element is a morpheme because it changes the meaning of the original word (e.g., cat, cats).
Listen as a middle school teacher talks about how he selects vocabulary, defines and contextualizes its meaning, and fosters discussion with his students (time: 2:29).
Paul Beavers Middle School Teacher, U.S. History Nashville, Tennessee
I teach U.S. history at the eighth-grade level. I try to think about what would an eighth grader know, what would they not know. And that certainly is a big part of putting together vocabulary for my class. But I also have students all the time come up and ask about a particular word clarification, so when that happens I’ll use it. I’ll make a note of that and then I use it across the board with all my classes, because I assume if one student doesn’t know that then there’s going to be many others. A couple of things that I do is, when I get to one of those words that I’m concerned might not be familiar, I’ll put it in bold type, and not only that. If it’s someone’s name, I’ll put pronunciation as well as a definition in parentheses following the word so that they can just keep reading, keep the flow, and not interrupt the learning, and they’re seeing it in context as well. Also, in class when we’re going over information or we’ve just read something or we’re discussing something, I’ll have students pair it up or in small groups, and I’ll ask them questions, and that includes vocabulary. I’ll throw a word out, or I’ll put it on the board and tell them to talk about what is that word. What do you see? What does it mean? So then we throw words out to help them complete the thought and then we talk about that. So that’s how we connect to prior learning. Just tell me what you already know, and they talk about it. And, again, having eighth graders I try to give them opportunity to talk as much as possible in a constructive way, because they’re going to talk anyway, so doing the pair-and-share works a lot on these kinds of things.
I think they retain it better when they hear it from one of their friends, or they’re saying it, they’re going to retain it. For instance, when we study the Protestant Reformation, I’ll put those two words on the board and let them discuss what words do you see there, break it down, tell me what you think this is about even before we study it. And just breaking down those two words, they know what the Protestant Reformation is before we even get started, so I’ve kind of killed two birds with one stone. They’ve learned the words. They also learned what that actually was.
Watch the movie to see how a seventh-grade math teacher helps her students learn how to break down words (time: 0:43).
This video is part of a Webinar produced by the Center on Instruction in conjunction with Doing What Works. To hear the entire Webinar, please visit http://www.centeroninstruction.org
Transcript: Highlighting Different Forms of the Word Intent
Teacher: To help my students to determine word meaning, I often use roots, depending on the week’s words. So for instance when we had percents, and we were doing a lot of percent conversions, I wanted my students to understand what the word percent really meant. So we broke it down. What is cent? Cent is of one hundred. Think of other words that have the root cent. And so students thought of century. Students thought of cent out of a dollar. Breaking down the word percent helped them better understand why you move the decimal two places to the left when you representing a percent as a decimal. It’s always of one hundred. It’s always in the hundredth place.
As part of this instruction, students should discuss how the applications of the word are similar to or different from the way the word is used in other content areas. Ms. Nor does this for the word table.
Table of contents
U.S. Government and Civics
Note some of the examples above are combinations of words which reflect content-specific terminology. Listen as Elfrieda Hiebert talks about this in more detail (time: 1:25).
Elfrieda Hiebert, PhD Research Associate University of California, Santa Cruz
In English, we do a lot of compounding of words. For example, playground, playhouse, greenhouse: It’s obvious that the word has been compounded because the words have been put together. But in content areas, we have a lot of phrases such as change of motion or composition of matter or conservation of mass, terms like house of representative. That’s not just any house. You have to understand that that’s a phrase functioning for a set of ideas, like the abolitionist movement or the Eastern Hemisphere. Those are terms that we need to actually guide students in understanding the overall concept, and that’s something content-area teachers can forget, that notion of the complex phrase. In a sense they’re compound words. You can take Declaration of Independence—Declaration and independence—they can have certain kinds of meanings on their own, but when we put it together it’s a very specific meaning. And if students haven’t done a lot of reading, they can really not understand that.