How To Build A Rich Vocabulary

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Expanding students’ vocabulary is hugely important—”the key to upward mobility,” as literacy expert E.D. Hirsh has put it, because because college-entrance exams such as the ACT and the SAT and military exams such as the Armed Forces Qualification Test demand such knowledge.

Moreover, “Vocabulary is the tip of the iceberg: Words reflect concepts and content that students need to know,” says Susan B. Neuman, a professor in educational studies specializing in early-literacy development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Sarah Sparks, a reporter at Education Week, quotes both Hirsh and Neuman in a very important article on an often-neglected topic. “Vocabulary,” Sparks writes, “is a deceptively simple literacy skill that researchers and educators agree is critical to students’ academic success, but which has proved frustratingly difficult to address”:

“In an ongoing series of studies of early-grades vocabulary instruction, Neuman analyzed how kindergarten educators choose and teach new words. She found limited vocabulary instruction across the board, but students in poverty—the ones prior research shows enter school knowing 10,000 fewer words than their peers from higher-income families—were the least likely to get instruction in academically challenging words.

Neuman found few formal, structured lessons on vocabulary during that time. Instead, most teachers defined words during ‘teachable moments’ that came up as they read stories to students or held discussions.

That informal style led to major discrepancies in both the number and difficulty of vocabulary words, with some teachers discussing only two words a day and others as many as 20.

Moreover, because most words were chosen from the stories, they had little connection to other words being taught at the same time and were rarely words that students would need to understand instructions or academic content in later grades. Prior studies have shown that students learn words better when they are grouped with related words.

Earlier studies also suggest a student needs to hear a new word 28 times on average to remember it. The more sophisticated the word, the more important it is for students to have opportunities to recall the word, use it, and understand how it relates to other, similar words,  Neuman said.

She found kindergarten teachers discussed vocabulary on average eight times a day, and rarely went back to recall and expand on words they had already defined.

‘In other words, we’re not teaching very many words, and we’re not teaching in a way that children will retain the words,’ Ms. Neuman said. ‘Essentially, I’m teaching these words, hoping like hell they’ve learned it, and never checking whether the children have learned it.'” (Read more here.)

Two takeaways here: 1) Kids need to encounter words many times before they stick, so talk talk talk and read read read!

2) Words are learned better when they’re grouped with related words, or encountered in a familiar context. Among other reasons, this is because readers will be better able to get the sense of a word in context if they’re familiar with the material that surrounds it.

Have you found an effective way to acquire or impart vocabulary words?

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3 Responses to “How To Build A Rich Vocabulary”

  1. Barry Kort says:

    In a world where more and more people are engaged in social networks where we exchange lots of words in text without face-to-face or voice-to-voice channels, it’s increasingly important to have a rich vocabulary for disclosing affective emotional states that would otherwise be communicated by facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice.

    Here is a list of vocabulary terms that one might like to dip into when in search of just the right word to convey a nuanced emotional state:

    “List of Specific Emotions”


  2. One of our dear friends just wrote about this very topic as it relates to learning music (http://ow.ly/hIPEM) and we couldn’t agree more. It can be difficult to convince young musicians that they need to learn the language of music. Far too many miss gigantic areas in the process simply because they mistake ‘playing’ songs with music education – especially in this youtube driven age. This eventually leads to frustration and often abandonment because they rarely get to take their music to a more creative or personal level. Instead they become mired in a ‘show me how’ mode of learning – only able to parrot or painstakingly copy at best. I imagine this same frustration is manifested in young readers who never become decent writers, consumers of books, or worse, turned off by reading altogether. There may not be a more effective way to impart vocabulary than to immerse students in the nuts and bolts of a topic with hopes that their interest in learning more will be piqued. Then provide many options for them to gather, retain, apply, and share said information in ways that they have become accustom.

  3. Bob says:

    High ‘g’ helps.

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