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Teacher to Teacher: What About Vocabulary?

By Lynne R. Dorfman

The investigation of the meaning of words is the beginning of wisdom.  – Antisthenes

 Do you remember getting a list of vocabulary words each week?  We had to look up the meaning and part of speech and use the word in a sentence. Then there was a test on Friday. Although I memorized the spelling of the words and their meanings to do well on the quizzes, most of the words did not stay with me. Often, the words on the lists had little or no relationship with one another. The words were just a random list – and such a list and method to learn new words is inefficient and ineffective.

Words are symbols for concepts, and readers bring meaning to the symbols. Readers develop schema from their reading experiences, and words will have many associations. Associations with each word’s most general meaning that most users share is called denotative, while associations not directly connected to a word’s denotative meaning are called connotative. For example, the word “hand” might connote horse trainers, veterinarians, and equestrians. As students move up the grades, new concepts are added each year.  Flanigan (Chester County Reading Association presentation, April 2017) suggests that the average high school senior’s vocabulary is about 40,000 words.  That suggests learning about 3000 words per grade level.   It makes good sense that our students are able to distinguish which meaning is intended within the context of the reading or discussion/lecture, and must account for and build on the students’ prior experiences.

How do we help students grow a love of language and words while growing their vocabularies? The authors of Vocbulary at the Core: Teaching the Common Core Standards suggest that teachers make use of graphic organizers and word games in their classrooms. They talk about building in opportunities for deep processing, teaching derivations, collocations, idioms, register (level of formality in speech with others; register depends on the situation, location, topic discussed, and other factors) and gender.  The authors tell us that to truly know a word, we should know many different aspects of the word including (but not limited to) the following:

  • spelling
  • pronunciation
  • meaning(s)
  • derivations (how words take on prefixes and suffixes to make new forms)
  • collocations: groups of words that form acceptable phrases (For example: “do the dishes” or “make the bed”)
  • register: (from formal to informal to slang)
  • idioms: phrases whose meaning cannot be discerned by looking up individual words (a figurative meaning – not a literal meaning. When you “tie the knot,” you are getting married and when it’s “raining cats and dogs,” it is raining very hard).
  • opposites (antonyms)
  • words that mean almost the same thing (synonyms)
  • gender: which words or collocations sound more feminine or masculine
  • intentions: how a word can change meanings by changing intonation and gestures

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