Improving Vocabulary

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At the beginning of a new semester, I consider the level of my students, and then look at what I have available from which to pull vocabulary words. In English, novels are an excellent opportunity to study words in context. In math, it can be more challenging. Science and Social Studies could not exist without an in-depth look at the words that allow the subjects to come alive. Regardless of the subject, vocabulary should be part of the curriculum.

Learning new words is difficult enough, and if we ask our students to do this without any context, we’re just throwing up a block wall in front of them. Hence the reason for my suggestion of novels. When I decide that I’m going to use a new novel in my class, I read it through first to understand the theme and verify that my students will ‘get’ the storyline and not be bogged down with words or concepts that are beyond their comprehension. Then I begin to look for words that aren’t too obscure or too easy, and if they are well-defined in the sentence, all the better. When I write down the word, I also write the sentence it appears in. At the end of each chapter, as a class, we devise a definition based on how the word is being used. I also have a few questions that I hope will keep their comprehension on track that we complete at the same time. As an extra incentive to take the notes, or get them from a classmate should they be absent, I allow them to use these notes on the test.

Depending on the students’ levels, I may also pull other vocabulary words from the Bell Ringers that they complete the first five minutes of class, their writings, or short stories and poems that we read from the grade level literature book. If left to ‘study’ on their own, most students won’t. Each day, we do an activity that helps them to practice the definition, use, and spelling of the word. Also, though we only do ten words per week, words from previous weeks are recycled on the test so they never really have the chance to ‘memorize’ for the test. They must really know the words.

Though it varies, depending on the words and the students, I generally have a list ready on Monday from whatever we read the previous week. We take notes on Monday, which could be a simple list, a web, or a diagram including the part of speech. What is always included is a picture. Pairing a picture with a word allows both hemispheres of the brain to work together, and especially helps students for whom language is not their friend (i.e., Learning Disabled). On Tuesday, we might make flashcards with the word and a picture on the front and the definition on the back. For Wednesday, I might create some sentences with blanks for the students to fill in with the vocabulary words. Thursday is generally a game of some sort, such as Bingo, Yes/No, or a whiteboard game where they might have to spell or give the part of speech for each vocabulary word. I always encourage them to study the words they don’t know (what’s the point in studying what they already understand?). There is always a test on Friday.

Since I also teach Algebra, vocabulary is a huge part of my curriculum. I encourage my students to use the ‘mathese’ that we take notes on, and study, throughout the week. This can be especially troublesome for students who really like math because they don’t believe there is any writing or reading involved. The complaints I get are many when I give them a Learning Log assignment! Unlined paper, or even colored paper, can help when taking vocabulary notes in math. Most often, the new words are directly related to the algorithms of a particular problem, such as coefficient, constant, variable, and solution belonging to an equation. If they begin their notes in the middle of their page, it gives them room to draw arrows or pictures or list other definitions without having to cram it in if they start at the top-left corner of their paper.

The brain has to make connections in order to learn, and that is the reason I stress introducing new vocabulary in context, how it is being used. I think that these suggestions can work for any grade level. If you have a few of your own that you use, visit my web site and contact me about buying your idea, game or activity.

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