Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tackling Vocabulary in Informational Text -- Part 2: Word Forms and Dictionary Skills

In our last blog, we talked about the particular challenge dense vocabulary poses to students engaging with informational text. We talked about ways to prime the vocabulary pump so that students are not immediately turned off by the informational text. 

We began with some sample vocabulary questions that focus on using context clues, in part because these questions highlight what students know rather than what they don’t. With that warm up in place, we can move on to more challenging words and vocabulary practice.

Word Forms and Dictionary Skills
The CCSS emphasize awareness of word forms as well as dictionary skills. On the latter, remember that no one is born knowing how to the use the dictionary! And with the wealth of online resources only a smartphone away, we live in a world rich with word resources. But simply sending students to the dictionary to find the definition of a word is a recipe for disaster. How will they know which definition to choose? How will they make sense out of the definition without context?

We suggest students practice their dictionary skills by using sources to determine the uncommon meaning of common words. Below is a sample from our unit (available for free to view and download at that puts an excerpt on rabies from a 1915 farm manual into dialogue with chapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird:

During the time of Mockingbird, a maid might be referred to as a domestic. And you can find a lot of discussion in the domestic news about what is going on in our country. But when Craig references rabies in “domestic animals and man,” he is using domestic in a different way. What is a domestic animal? Can you see any relationship between the different meanings of the word domestic?

This level of dictionary work will better prepare students to use word sources generally (and to find the particular sources they like best).  

Then, students can move on to more challenging questions that require source work. Below, the question asks the students to look up the word “emaciated,” but the answer requires the students to go beyond just knowing the definition.

The cat was emaciated. The veterinarian could be expected to suggest more food or less? Why?
One of the most frustrating parts of vocabulary acquisition and instruction is the interval between knowing what a word means and knowing how to use it correctly. For this reason, and to reinforce context clues and word meanings in a low-stakes way, we suggest some practice with parts of speech and word endings. Be patient with your students. This is difficult.

At certain points in history, a thin physique has been considered disgusting, unhealthy, and a bad omen; during these periods, an _____ person was looked down upon.
a) emaciate
b) emaciated
c) emaciation
d) emaciates
The activities above will prepare students to read the informational text with a far greater level of comfort, but they will also help students move towards owning these new words and become more comfortable generally with the process of working with and understanding unfamiliar words. That, in the end, is our larger goal.

If you're starting to feel overwhelmed by -- and wondering when you'll find the time for -- all of these activities, fear not. We are by no means suggesting that you undertake all of these strategies all of the time. Pick the activities most relevant to your students' needs and your current instructional goals. 

But stay tuned for our next blog, in which we’ll discuss our favorite vocabulary activity – vocabulary skits – which are interactive, fun, and creative!

No comments:

Post a Comment