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When teaching vocabulary to high school students, it is all about broadening their ability to accurately and precisely use language. Vocabulary should be taught daily. I teach it at least three times per week. One of the most important indicators for the success of students in school, on assessments, and in their writing is vocabulary development. The understanding anyone has about a topic is dependent on the vocabulary they know and can use to express themselves.
Why Teachers Must Teach Vocabulary
Nearly all research on vocabulary points to the fact that not only is vocabulary important, but that it must be taught. Nagy & Anderson found that in grades 3-12, a student is likely to learn approximately 3,000 new vocabulary words each year under the assumption that they the average student reads anywhere between 500,000 and one million words of text every school year (Nagy & Anderson, 1984).
It is clear that vocabulary development is an imperative part of teaching, particularly when working in low-opportunity school districts. There are disparities in vocabulary development between socioeconomic class. Their research suggests that students from a low socioeconomic status see an increase in vocabulary of 3,000 words per year versus 5,000 words per year for middle class students. English language learners are more disadvantaged in the area of vocabulary development.
English Learners and Vocabulary Development
Students who are learning English may enter high school able to communicate in colloquial English but still have to face the challenge of vocabulary disparities in academic English. Vocabulary has been shown to be one of the biggest predictors of academic success in school for English learners. By 9th grade, students should have a reading vocabulary of 25,000 words; by 12th grade students should have a reading vocabulary of 50,000 words (Graves, 2006).
In this article, we will explore two evidence-based practices for teaching vocabulary, including explicit instruction and keyword mnemonics, to develop vocabulary in our students. We will also review some of my favorite resources and tools for developing vocabulary in any student.
How to Use Mnemonics to Develop Vocabulary
Evidence-based practices for vocabulary instruction include keyword mnemonics, direct instruction, fluency building vocabulary practice activities, cognitive strategies, and computer assisted instruction. The results of using these strategies in class to develop vocabulary results in overwhelmingly positive growth across ages and grade levels.
Today, we will focus on using mnemonics and explicit instruction to help students learn and remember new vocabulary. Students can use the skill from Kindergarten all the way through their final university exams to remember important vocabulary words. One you teach the routine, students will be able to use this tool independently. The long-term benefits are astounding.
Before we begin studying our new vocabulary words, I like to give a pre-test. The pre-test is not graded. It’s important to make that clear for students. I give them the list of vocabulary words and ask them to write or draw anything they know about the words. This is a great opportunity for English learners to show if they recognize roots of the words or words that sound similar in their first language. Seeing what connections they make without reviewing the definitions is helpful when you give the graded vocabulary quiz.
I like to print these sets of task cards for my students. I show them my example and thinking process. For example, the word eerie means scary. Scary and eerie have similar end sounds, so that will help me remember that eerie means scary.
For explicit instruction, I follow the ‘I do, We do, You do’ model. First, I will teach the students the keyword mnemonics strategy using two vocabulary words. Second, we will do two examples together creating a short definition, story, and picture. Last, students will complete six on their own to practice this skill. During instructional time, I give students specific feedback to improve their practice.
Incorporate Vocabulary into your Daily Routine
After we finish our mnemonic task cards, that is not the end of our work with the vocabulary words. We look at synonyms, antonyms, and parts of speech. Every day, we will play a quick game with the words. I like to cut up the words and definitions and have the students match them. Another great game is Heads Up, where every students gets a sticky note on their forehead with a vocabulary word. They have to ask their partner questions about the word to guess what it is. Lastly, I really like using flyswatters because they’re fun and interactive. Write all the vocabulary words on a whiteboard. Two students will face off. Say the definition of one of the words and whoever swats the word first goes to the next round. Check out some of my favorite tools for teaching vocabulary.
My Top Tools for Teaching Vocabulary
1. Whiteboard Fox is a free online whiteboard that has nearly all the functions of a classroom Smartboard. I use it for Pictionary among other fun, visual vocabulary games.
2. Did you know that by the end of twelfth grade, students are expected to know 50,000 words? Here is an article on how to select a few of them.
3. I am sure you have heard of Quizlet, but what about Vocabulary Spelling City? Despite some glitches, this website and app allows you to generate vocabulary lists that link to fun games for younger kids to learn new words.
4. Osmo is not a free resource, but it is certainly a fun resource. Osmo has some amazingly interactive games to learn vocabulary, which are perfect for engaging English learners.
5. Taboo is a fun game to practice new vocabulary. Students have to describe the word without saying the word (or 5 key words on the card). Taboo will quickly become a class favorite.
6. Puzzlemaker is a free tool that allows you to create your own games using vocabulary words.
At the end of the week, I give a graded quiz. The results are amazing after you dive into the words for an entire week. Using vocabulary mnemonics is an investment. It may take some time to teach the students the process, but one they learn, the skill lasts a lifetime. I dedicated 10 minutes to vocabulary learning every class to help my English learners make gains on vocabulary learning they need to use language precisely.
Is vocabulary a priority in your classroom?
You can find my resources for teaching vocabulary, including the materials described above, here.
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