Teaching Vocabulary

Following on from Hugh’s and Di’s presentation yesterday, I had some thoughts about integrating what they were talking about into the school’s teaching frameworks.

GANAGing vocabulary

When is the best time to introduce new terms? New terms will be encountered at all stages of the GANAG process, of course, but teaches can strategically introduce new terms to different ends.

G – The beginning of a unit can involve an introduction to new terms. You might put a vocabulary teaser into this section, include terms that will be learnt into an advanced organiser or you might decide to keep them up your sleeve for reasons that will become clear later in this post.

A – A discussion about prior knowledge will always bring up some terms which will be new to some of the kids. Write them down (in real life or online) and have a go at defining them. Don’t forget the strategies that Hugh and Di covered for defining words – look for similarities with other words (comparing the root of the word to other words, for example), look for other, different sounding words with a similar meaning; or, when a satisfactory definition cannot be identified, generating a hypothesis about what the word might mean and then come back to it later when you have explained the concept.

N – New information is where your lesson gets really exciting. You might want to save big and exciting terms for this part of the lesson rather than covering them at the start. Build up the new words that are coming at the beginning of the topic (without letting the cat out of the bag) and then, BAM, unleash them here.

A – Here is the opportunity for the students to put these new words into use: make sure that use of appropriate vocabulary is built into your rubrics so students see the value in applying these new words in the form of higher grades. This is also the time to explain words that relate to the process of completing tasks. These are the Tier 2 terms that Hugh mentioned. Ask yourself, do the students properly understand what it means to analyse, contrast, predict, manipulate, estimate or interpret?

G – Review new terms in the goal review – Did we learn new terms? Do we know what these terms mean? Can we use these terms properly?

Applying instructional strategies to teaching vocabulary

Many of the instructional strategies covered in Classroom instruction that works are directly applicable to the teaching of vocabulary.

Nonlinguistic representation

The most effective strategy covered in Pollock’s work – identifying similarities and differences – is also one of the most powerful strategies in learning new words. Students will often know other words with the same root that will help them to understand a new word (photosynthesis: photograph, photocopy = something to do with light). Alternatively, students can attempt to find other words with a similar meaning (conscientious: dedicated, hard-working). Students can also learn new words through the comparison to their opposite (conscientious – careless).

Summarizing and notetaking can be used to record new words, their meaning, synonyms, antonyms and root words. Similarly, new words can be outlined in advanced organisers. It is critically important that these notes or organisers are revisited in class, as homework, as part of completing the assessment task or through preparation for exams.

Students should be recognised and rewarded for using adventurous vocabulary both during formative assessment – by making positive written or verbal comments – and summative assessment by including vocabulary on marking rubrics.

Non-linguistically representing new words is a powerful way for learners to internalise new words. They also show the students how they relate to other terms in the topic (see Photosynthesis, above).

Another key strategy to learning new words is predicting what they mean. This involves generating a hypothesis through the strategies covered in identifying similarities and differences and then testing that hypothesis (replacing the word you don’t know for a word you do and seeing if the sentence makes sense, for example).

These strategies all have a proven effect size on student learning meaning that students will learn beyond what they would learn if you were not implementing these strategies. These are simple ways that you can improve student performance and develop literacy skills along the way.

Teaching literacy all the time

It is important to remember that, unless students have strong literacy skills, they will not be able to interact with the written content in any of their subjects. As such, it is in all teachers’ interests to teach students strategies to improve their vocabularies. Many of these strategies seem innate but, as Hugh and Di covered, they are not.

Students need to be taught at least 400 new words per year in order to properly develop their reading comprehension.  Further encouragement of reading for 25 minutes a day will improve a student’s vocabulary by 1000 words. This is particularly important in the senior school where students are not reading as part of the literacy program.

New words are exciting, fun and productive. Use and encourage a varied vocabulary with your students and they will thank you for it with better results.


About timthelibrarian

Tim Harwood is a Teacher Librarian and eLearning enthusiast.
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