Teaching Vocabulary

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Word of the Day is a practice that trains several spotlights on one new vocabulary word each day. Done Chicago-style, the principal reads it, defines it and uses it in a sentence over the public address system. Teachers post it in their rooms. Schools administer monthly quizzes on the words and give prizes to the highest scorers. Even when schools do all this, Word of the Day has both detractors and advocates among the ranks of reading experts.

“Teaching one word at a time out of context is the worst way of teaching vocabulary, with rapid forgetting almost guaranteed,” asserts Frank Smith, author of “The Book of Learning and Forgetting,” recently published by Teachers College Press.

According to Smith, people assimilate new vocabulary words from context the first time they read them, “provided that the gist of the material being read is both interesting and comprehensible. Within five more encounters, the word and its conventional meaning are usually firmly established in the mind of the reader.”

Other educators who share this view add that when reading material isn’t instantly interesting or comprehensible, it’s the teacher’s job to build context by activating students’ prior knowledge of the topic. With regard to vocabulary, that means having students identify difficult words themselves and pool their knowledge to get the meaning.

In “Reading for Understanding,” the four authors describe how their students determined the “survival words” in difficult texts and worked together to define them.

At the other end of the spectrum, skills-oriented educators advocated direct instruction in vocabulary as a prerequisite for comprehension; to them, a strategy like Word of the Day has merit. Ann Marie Longo, director of the Boys Town Reading Center, argues that teens can’t use context effectively when their vocabularies are limited. Limited vocabulary, she adds, is the most common problem among weak readers she’s worked with. Longo begins with direct instruction in words and their meanings and then provides high-interest opportunities to use the words.

Vocabulary expert Isabel Beck of the University of Pittsburgh embraces both approaches. For her, there are four ways to learn vocabulary: wide reading, hearing unfamiliar words in speech, direct instruction in words and “gimmicks” to boost students’ interest. Word of the Day has two of the four, direct instruction and student incentives, so she thinks it’s a good idea.

But as with any educational technique, how it’s done is key. Beck suggests teachers incorporate difficult words into their classroom routines and encourage students to look for the words in reading outside class.

Longo agrees that students need to put new words to use in writing and conversation as well as reading. But she offers another route. “We’re talking every game you can think of here,” she says, rattling off popular games Boys Town has modified to practice vocabulary: Jeopardy, $20,000 Pyramid, and so on. Boys Town students also play a conversation game using questions that combine new words and force students to think through their meanings. For example, “Is heredity random?”

“For vocabulary instruction to increase comprehension,” says Longo, “you have to see those words over and over again.”