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Building Vocabulary

Intentionally Learning New Words

By Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University

In my previous post, I pointed out that while we acquire most new words through our life’s experience, intentional vocabulary instruction in school is still of vital importance. In this post I’ll address a technique for making vocabulary instruction engaging and interesting for both students and teachers.

One of best places to encounter words for expanding vocabulary is simply in the texts that students read. Authors purposely use rich vocabulary to enhance their writing. Moreover, because the words authors use are embedded in rich meaningful context, readers can often determine the meaning of the words from the clues given by that context. Consider the following sentence:

Not trusting Sam, George assumed he was mendacious and refused to believe a word he uttered.

Although the word “mendacious” may not be familiar to some readers, it should be easy to figure out in context that it means being dishonest. But what often happens is that we determine the meaning of the word and move on with reading. Teachers can take advantage of these opportunities to help expand students’ vocabularies.

Reading aloud to students is an ideal activity for developing students’ interest in reading while exposing them to high-quality literature and to equally wonderful words. As you read to your students, ask them to listen for any interesting or unusual words that the author has used. Students may want to have a pencil and paper handy in order to jot down these words.

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D.

One of the best places to encounter words for expanding vocabulary is simply in the texts that students read.

After reading and discussing the story with your students, ask them to call out the words they noted. You can also list a few words of your own. Write and display the words from the whole class on the board or on a chart, or have students jot the words down in their own personal word journals. Ask students to talk about why they chose certain words. Most importantly, clarify and discuss the meaning of each word as you write it.

Once the words are on display, challenge your students to use the words in their own written and oral language over the next few days. The challenge applies to you as well! Each day add new words and spend a few minutes each day reading through and discussing recent and previous additions. If you add 10 words each day, your students will have gained ownership of 1,800 extra words over the course of a school year (10 words per day x 180 school days).

This activity will improve students’ reading comprehension, and their writing will improve as well, as they begin to use their new words in their own written compositions. (By the way, I have never seen a writing evaluation rubric without word choice as one of the criteria for judging the quality of writing.)

Above all, activities like these develop in students a fascination with words that will last a lifetime. Many of them will even become lexophiles: lovers of words.

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