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Thursday / August 17

Learning Soul Mates: Vocabulary and Comprehension

Vocabulary and comprehension are soul mates! They go together like cheese and crackers, bread and jam, friendship and trust.

The more words students have the better they can read and comprehend. With a wealth of words, students can write and be creative and innovative problem solvers.

We’ve all had students who can read words fluently in a grade level text. The rub is that these students can’t make meaning with that text. Referred to as word callers, they struggle to learn from grade level texts as much as students reading two or more years below grade level.

Whether readers are proficient or advanced, word callers or below grade level readers, we teachers need to improve their reading skill. One surefire way to do this is with consistent vocabulary instruction. Make instruction meaningful and playful! So set aside ten to fifteen minutes a day and watch vocabulary and comprehension improve.

When I ask a middle grade or middle school student, “How can I help you be a better reader?” The answer pours out like lemonade flowing from a pitcher into a glass: “Give me words!”

Kids know the score; they know what they need.  To help students read and learn from complex texts, explore the five strategies that follow. Use them with fiction and nonfiction. Start every class with a read loud! Then dive deeply into your vocabulary lesson.

Strategy 1:  The Teacher Reads, Reads, Reads!

Read aloud every day. Never miss a day! Touch students’ hearts by reading texts you love!  And all the while, you’re building students’ vocabulary and knowledge of literary language!

Strategy 2: Denotative and Connotative Meanings

Zoom in on a key word in a book’s title, in a poem, or in a book. Pair-up students. Have them determine the denotative and connotative meanings. Connotations can provide discussion points and links to central themes and ideas. Here’s the list of connotations generated by sixth graders for the word “Quest” in Katherine Paterson’s Park’s Quest: tasks, journey, danger, battles, inner struggles, goal, destination, undertaking, explore, chase. Ease your teaching load! With a list like this, you don’t need to ask questions. Instead, students discuss how a word connects to the story.

Strategy 3: Figurative Language and Comprehension 

Move beyond students memorizing definitions of simile, metaphor, personification, etc. Have them use figurative language to visualize. If students can create a mental image, it’s a sure bet that they comprehend. Help them dig deeper by connecting the figurative language to a theme or main idea. For example, in The Great Fire, author Jim Murphy writes that the day the fire started, “55 miles of pine block streets and 600 miles of wooden sidewalks bound the 23,000 acres of city in a highly combustible knot.” Students connected the knot metaphor to a big idea: in 1871 Chicago was a death trap for people. Wooden homes, buildings, sidewalks, streets meant fire engines couldn’t get into neighborhoods and people couldn’t escape.

Strategy 4:  Generate and Discuss Sets of Synonyms

Instead of teaching one word, help students create sets of words. By discussing a word-set, negative and positive meanings surface. Choose key words from texts students are reading.  For bold, seventh graders offered: assertive, brave, risk-taker, fearless, daring, bossy, bully. Note gradations of meaning, especially from assertive to bossy and bully.

Strategy 5: Independent Reading With Self-Selected Books

Choice can engage students. They invest in choosing a genre they’re bonded to and in reading books by a beloved author or about a topic they love!

Help students select books they can read—1oo% comprehension and about 95% accuracy.  Let them experience the pleasure of time stopping as they lose themselves in a book!

Build your class library! Access to books is key! Encourage students to read at least 40 self-selected books a year. And watch students’ vocabulary and prior knowledge grow.

These five strategies are a beginning! Take the time to read and reflect on my Corwin book, Vocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts. You’ll find lessons to carry you through a year of word-love!

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Written by

An author, teacher, coach, and speaker, LAURA ROBB has spent the last four decades in middle school education. What teachers appreciate most about Laura is her deep commitment to children and adolescents, and her ability to show what best-practice instruction looks like day by day; a survey conducted by Instructor magazine named Laura as one of the nation’s top twenty educators. Currently, in addition to her speaking and consulting, she works part time in grades K-8.

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