Saturday, December 22, 2012

Words, Words, Words

Vocabulary sentences I have actually received from 10th grade students:
    • American rice, compared to Japanese rice, is incoherent
    • Jerry pervaded the mall with his girlfriend. 
    • Tom desolated in the toilet bowl.
Knowing a dictionary definition clearly doesn’t mean you understand the word. Here are the corresponding definitions the students had written down:
    • incoherent: not sticking together
    • pervade: go throughout
    • desolated: laid waste
Words have beauty, power, and precision. Some students seem to own that as a natural birthright, some struggle for any kind of control, and some simply don’t care. How can I help all students delight in discovering new words, uncovering their meaning, and learning to wield them? I think we still need some kind of vocabulary program in high school. I think using words found in context is best. But I don't know. When I learn a new word, I suddenly see it everywhere. Then one day, I can use it. How can I help students do that? 

All these things have been going through my head, so when I came across The Vocabulary Book by Michael Graves right before school started in August, I ordered it immediately, knowing I’d only be able to chip away at it bit by bit until next summer, but the bits have been so exciting, I started my Christmas vacation by treating myself to a chapter a day. 

I was so excited because the book articulates what I’d suspected, proposing a 4-pronged approach to vocabulary learning and providing skill components, lesson plans, and examples.

The 4-pronged vocabulary approach is
    • Providing rich and varied language experiences
    • Teaching individual words
    • Teaching word-learning strategies
    • Fostering word consciousness (5-7) 
For an example of skill components, Graves labels word-learning strategies as 
    • Using context clues
    • Using word parts
    • Using reference tools
    • Developing a strategy for dealing with unknown words
    • Adopting a personal approach to building their vocabularies (91)
Here’s the steps to a strategy for dealing with unknown words:
    • Recognize that an unknown word has occurred.
    • Decide whether you need to understand it to understand the passage.
    • Attempt to infer the meaning of the word from the context surrounding it.
    • Attempt to infer the meaning looking for word parts.
    • Attempt to sound out the word and see if you come up with a word you know.
    • Turn to a dictionary, glossary, or another person for the meaning. (114-115)
I need this list of strategies because it comes so naturally to me, I don’t know what I’m doing. Having Graves articulate it for me, I can now teach less apt students what I do. And I’m excited at the timing because I’d been planning to target word choice more particularly in my poetry unit coming up at the end of January.

But even closer than that, the book confirmed that I’m doing some things well--like having students process words at least two ways, having set up two Quizlet lists for each 20-item vocabulary list, one with the word in its context from our reading and the other with a definition. And just confirming that choosing vocabulary words from our reading is a good thing.

Additionally, it confirmed that I can trust my instincts in vocabulary teaching: Earlier this week I was engaging in a holiday tradition, reading my daughter, a college sophomore home for Christmas vacation, “Twas the Night before Christmas.” I found myself doing one of the protocols for young children in the book--leaving out lines for the child to fill in (almost impossible NOT to do with familiar poetry!). 

As a 19-year-old English education major, she was also using her word understanding skills (because we’re all always still learning and growing). After I read, “The stump of a pipe / he held tight in his teeth...,” she asked to see the accompanying picture. “Oh! I was envisioning a big metal plumbing pipe, and that wasn’t working for me.” 

As a 47-year-old experienced English teacher, the following day, I had to look up courser

Graves, Michael F. The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2006. Print.

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