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A Neglected Predictor of Comprehension

Now that I find myself working in international settings, the question I hear most frequently is, "How can I build my students' vocabulary?" In turn, much of my work has focused on teaching vocabulary in an integrated, authentic, meaningful way. Vocabulary is a key predictor of comprehension. The weaker the student's vocabulary, the lower his comprehension. The lower his comprehension, the simpler books he'll be reading. And reading simpler texts will not increase his vocabulary. Cliché, but it's a vicious cycle.

What to do? Well, to start, you can toss out those old vocabulary programs and word lists. There's not much research that supports the use of such programs or lists. The 2000 National Reading Panel reported that “dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning.” The report, along with other researchers, goes on to say that highly effective vocabulary instruction requires:

1) Explicit teaching of definition alongside context

2) Deep processing of words by making links to other words

3) Multiple exposures of the word that use the word in a variety of contexts

Below I've outlined two of my favorite methods of teaching vocabulary that you can use throughout your day, not just in your literacy block.

Vocabulary Word Sort

How It Works

1) Identify two or more previously discussed vocabulary words.

--> After reading "Stray" by Cynthia Rylant to a group of upper elementary students, we decided to focus on two unknown vocabulary words: stray and blizzard.

2) Prior to the lesson, the teacher puts several words, phrases, or images related to the target words on index cards.

-->As an alternative, you could ask a couple of students who are already deeply familiar with these words to do this.

3) After reviewing the meaning of the words with the students, preferably in the context of the story or another familiar contexts, students are asked to sort the index cards into one of the categories.

4) A follow-up discussion on how the cards were sorted will lead to deep understanding of each new word.

5) For a twist, try putting in words that might lend themselves to both or neither and have an "oddball" category!

Semantic Mapping

How it Works

1) Give students a target word based on something you'll be studying, a word you've encountered during a read aloud, or a concept with which students are struggling. Let's use crocodile as an example.

2) Ask students to write words, phrases or images that come to mind when they hear crocodile. They can do this on sticky notes, sentence strips, etc.

Tech suggestion: Use an app called Popplet. Put the word in the middle of the screen. Kids call out words they association with the target word and you can add these words around the target word to create a web. Drawings and images can also be added.

3) Gather the words and spread them out so all children can see.

If using Popplet, the words will already be displayed on your screen.

4) Together, come up with categories into which you could sort the words. In this example, we see "Physical Characteristics" and "Diet" of a crocodile.

5) Sort the words accordingly and create your semantic map so that the target word has only three to five stems (large categories) and that each stem contains the rest of the descriptors (see example below).

If using Popplet, you can drag the words around to build your categories.

Note: Encourage rich discussion during each step. This will enhance the students' understanding, build oral language skills, and solidify the meanings of any unknown words.


Effective Instruction for Elementary Struggling Readers: Research Based Practices (Rev. ed), by University of Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts

Research-Based Methods of Reading Instruction for ELLs by Linan-Thompson & Vaughn

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