In my previous post, I highlighted certain aspects of vocabulary teaching and learning and in today’s post, I am sharing my key lessons which I learned about vocabulary teaching and learning for eight years. Before you jump right in, I’d like to mention the research work of Charlene Cobb and Camille Blachowicz in their book No More “Look Up the List” Vocabulary Instruction which specifically highlights certain vocabulary teaching practices that do not work and why they don’t work anymore. Additionally, the book introduces various other research-proven strategies that improve vocabulary teaching and learning.
So here are the lessons I learned about vocabulary instruction:
- Not all students learn new words at the same pace
- Not all students learn in the same way; learning styles matter
- Embed vocabulary teaching in rich contexts
- Multiple exposures to words and their meanings in various contexts help vocabulary retention
- Improved vocabulary retention directly improves reading, writing, listening and speaking skills
- Students with better vocabulary repository tend to outperform other students who are not exposed to rich vocabulary in their primary years
- Sole reliance on incidental vocabulary learning is dangerous
- Vocabulary instruction should provide rich student engagement opportunities
- Learning styles should be taken into consideration when designing vocabulary learning tasks
- Technology can supplement vocabulary instruction
01. Not all students learn new words at the same pace
In my teaching career, I came across many students whose receptive and productive vocabulary was quite broad. Some of them were good at guessing the meaning of the word they’d listen to which indicated they were using the contextual clues effectively. Some of them wouldn’t use new vocabulary in their conversations and speeches, but would rather produce written texts rich in advanced vocabulary which was quite impressive. Overall the reason for this broad gap in the students’ receptive and productive vocabulary was due to the lack of opportunities to practice receptive vocabulary in their speaking and writing. Another big factor was the absence of accountability. So if you assign vocabulary learning tasks, hold your students accountable for their practice and try to probe them about their prior knowledge of the target vocabulary. Chances are the words you assign might be in their receptive vocabulary i.e. they must have heard them, or read them in books, or in all possibility you might find out that the words you assign were strangers to them. So assessing students’ level of vocabulary over time becomes crucial.
02. Not all students learn in the same way; learning styles matter
My experience with ELLs confirms that if the teacher is aware of or is ready to explore her students’ preferred learning styles, she can offer a better mix of vocabulary learning tasks that do not rely on one specific modality of vocabulary teaching. This exposure to a better mix of vocabulary learning experiences lets students explore their word learning capabilities and the chances are high that they acquire new words and retain for longer periods.
03. Embed vocabulary teaching in rich contexts
Word learning becomes meaningful and is expected to stick with students if the unknown words are presented in rich contexts. This means that chances are high that students who are exposed to new words in proper and meaningful contexts such as paragraphs, passages, stories, novels, content area essays, are better able to understand the meaning, form, and function of the new words as the context serves as an opportunity for students to notice how the new words function in varied contexts. Picture books are one special example where preschoolers and kindergarteners are encouraged to attach meaning to the unfamiliar vocabulary.
04. Multiple exposures to words and their meanings in various contexts help vocabulary retention
Research has proven that teachers need to ensure that their students have repeated exposures to target vocabulary for better retention and transition from receptive vocabulary knowledge to productive vocabulary knowledge.
Watch the video by educational consultant Anita Archer who provides various word learning opportunities to sixth grade ELA students. She demonstrates teacher-led activities such as providing definitions, eliciting choral responses, contextualizing the target vocabulary, and building real-life connections with the word in one lesson. Notice how she provides multiple scenarios where students might encounter the target word and might be able to use it in a meaningful context.
05. Improved vocabulary retention directly improves reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills
Numerous studies prove that there is a direct relationship between improved vocabulary retention and accelerated performance in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. If your students can retain the new vocabulary and use it at comprehensive and generative levels (Baker, 1995) then you will be able to witness an improvement in their reading comprehension, writing, listening, and speaking skills.
06. Students with better vocabulary repository tend to outperform other students who are not exposed to rich vocabulary in their primary years
Students who enter middle school with relatively rich vocabulary, they continue to outperform other students. This does not limit to English Language Arts only but is proven from their performances across other content areas.
07. Sole reliance on incidental vocabulary learning is dangerous
Extensive and intensive reading do improve students’ vocabulary and comprehension, but if the teachers start relying on incidental vocabulary learning only, they’d be choosing a path to failure. There is no surefire method to ensure that incidental vocabulary learning alone guarantees vocabulary development. Research has proven that for vocabulary development teachers need to introduce a mix of various vocabulary learning opportunities including a higher frequency of word exposures and word processing or productive vocabulary learning activities.
08. Vocabulary instruction should provide rich student engagement opportunities
This one goes without saying, ‘High interest, results in high attention and high commitment’.
If the vocabulary activities are engaging, age, and interest-appropriate for your students, they will attempt the tasks with high attention and persistence because they will then value the task at hand. We know that all teacher-directed activities will hold no value for students if they are not engaged, not participating, and are not accountable for their vocabulary learning. So teachers need to come up with interesting and engaging vocabulary activities so that their students do not lose interest. For more on student engagement, see Phillip Schlechty’s book Engaging Students – The Next Level of Working on the Work here.
09. Learning styles should be taken into consideration when designing vocabulary learning tasks
I always tell my mentees, “Tap into the power of your students’ learning styles and behaviors. Learn about them. Give them different learning experiences for them to learn at their best and for you to observe them when they are learning at their best.” I am a visual and kinesthetic learner! Ask me to memorize a recipe, I’d do a fine job. Show me how it is done – I’d do a good job. Let me do it – I’d do an amazing job! To learn more about learning styles and learning theories, check out Alan Pritchard’s Ways of Learning.
10. Technology can supplement vocabulary instruction
This is the year 2020. The year when teachers around the world have to grapple with the challenges of teaching online, yet tap into the power of technology and teach remotely. Technology offers a world of engaging tech-based vocabulary activities that not only the teacher’s work is shared, but the students learn at their best too. See ThingLink, Rewordify, or Peardeck’s Flashcard Factory and you’ll thank me later.
Let me know in the comments, what lessons you learned about vocabulary instruction. What were the challenges you faced in your teaching career? Drop-in your comments if you’ve read any books, researches, or blogs about effective vocabulary instruction?