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Thursday / April 25

Learning Words, Inside and Out

little girl with red hair reading a book on a sofa

A lot goes into learning words and phrases, which are widely recognized as critical to understanding the content of what you are reading.  Teaching vocabulary is a critical aspect of overall reading development and is an important strand in language comprehension.  After all, while decoding a word is the first step, ascribing meaning to that word is the next.  Both are critical parts of the reading process, as is fluency which we discussed in a previous blog.

Whenever possible, we want to equip our students with the necessary cognitive tools they need to solve terms. By that we mean that teachers model and explain to students how they used strategies to figure out the meaning of the word.

Thankfully, students develop some of their word knowledge incidentally, through their interactions with texts, the world around them, and other people.  But some words and phrases require explicit learning.  Knowing the difference is important and teachers should select those worthy of instructional attention.  These words should be important for understanding the text or task. However, not all words are worthy of instruction.  If the word appears once and is not necessary for students to use later in the lesson, it’s possible to simply tell them what the word means and then move on.

Worthy words and phrases are those that are key to the meaning of the passage and will be crucial for discussion and composing. If the word or phrase is important, then we must decide how to approach it instructionally. When these learning opportunities arise, teachers have two choices: Word solving or direct instruction.

Word Solving

Whenever possible, we want to equip our students with the necessary cognitive tools they need to solve terms. By that we mean that teachers model and explain to students how they used strategies to figure out the meaning of the word.  This could involve one of three things:

  • Context clues
  • Word parts
  • Resources

Let’s start with context clues.  Context doesn’t always help, but sometimes it does and students need to learn how to analyze the clues to determine the meaning of unknown words.  Context clues are directive, in that they direct the reader’s attention to the term. Types of directive clues are:

  • Definition or Explanation: The most obvious clue occurs when the author explains the word immediately after its use.
  • Restatement or Synonym: The author provides a restatement or synonym of the unfamiliar term. Often the meaning is right after the unfamiliar word, but it can also be separated by a comma, parentheses, or a dash.
  • Contrast or Antonym: Some clues provide a contrast for the target word such that readers can infer the word’s meaning while reading. Key words for this type of context clue include but, however, whereas, otherwise, unless, although, while, and instead.
  • Comparison: Some clues provide a comparison for the target word such that readers can see how the words are the same or similar. Key words for this type of context clue include like, as, too, similar to, and phrases such as in the same way.
  • Inference or Description: Sometimes a word or phrase is not immediately clarified within the sentence. Relationships, while not directly apparent, are inferred or implied. The reader must look for clues before or after the sentence in which the term appears.
  • Examples or Lists/Series: At times a word or phrase is clarified through examples. The author may even provide a series of related words that give an idea of the unknown word’s meaning. Key phrases for this type of context clue are for example and for instance.
  • Cause and Effect: In this context clue, the reader can infer the meaning on the unfamiliar word by discerning a cause and effect relationship in the text.

If context will not help the reader, morphology, which is comprised of the meaningful parts of the word, might.  Of course, the word parts need to have been taught previously for students to use the information to make sense of a given word. If a prefix, root, or suffix has been taught, teachers can model how to use that information to determine the meaning of the unknown word.

When the first two approaches—context and word parts—don’t provide enough information, teachers model the use of resources.  This can include peer resources, dictionaries, and the Internet.  The point is that students have many experiences with their teachers modeling and demonstrating how word solving works. And they are given opportunities to practice and apply word solving on their own such that it becomes a habit that they use as they read.

Tips for Successful Modeling Word Solving

  • Preview the text and plan what you will model.
  • Signal students that you are thinking aloud: point to your head, put on a thinking cap, or provide some other visual cue.
  • Make first-person statements such as “I noticed….” and include context clues or morphology.

Direct Instruction

When word solving is not possible, and the word or phrase is worthy of instructional attention, teachers use direct instruction.  This is much more than simply telling students what the word means.  Instead, teachers provide a description, an explanation, or an example of the unfamiliar term.  As the lesson progresses, students restate the definition, explanation, or example in their own words. The process of direct instruction for text-based vocabulary, developed by Tennyson and Cocchiarella (1986), includes:

  1. Label and define. Students first need to be able to attach a short meaning and a label to an unfamiliar word. Tell them what the word means.
  2. After defining, ground the word or phrase within the author’s use.
  3. Give a best example. Link the word to something they might already know.
  4. Elaborate on attributes. Contrastive examples help students understand what it is not.
  5. Provide strategy information. Tell students a strategy you used to figure out the word.

Tips for Direct Instruction

  • Identify words that cannot be easily solved with context clues or morphology.
  • Show students the word in context.
  • Read the word and have students repeat it aloud.
  • Explain what the word means, using the word several times.
  • Provide contextual information about the word, depending on students’ ages (part of speech, related words, other forms of the word, or synonyms and antonyms or contrastives).

Of course, there is more to vocabulary instruction than introducing students to words and phrases.  They need to practice using the terms in their interactions with others, in their writing, and over longer periods of time.  The practice should be both collaborative, with others, and individual. They also need to read widely to expand their word knowledge and apply the word solving strategies they are being taught. Each day and each lesson need some attention to vocabulary knowledge.  When vocabulary instruction is intentional, based on words students really need to know, their literacy performance improves.

Tennyson, R. D., & Cocchiarella, M. J. (1986). An empirically based instructional design theory for teaching concepts. Review of Educational Research, 56(1), 40–71.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook , Teaching Reading, and several other Corwin books.  Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook, Teaching Reading and many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

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