Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Vocabulary instruction needs to be authentic

Vocabulary instruction is both super challenging and super important and is receiving more and more attention as a result of the Common Core (see for example, the recent “Under Common Core, Students Learn Words by Learning about the World” in Education Week). Because complex informational texts often include masses of unfamiliar domain-specific vocabulary, working with this kind of text in the language arts classroom highlights both the challenges and the importance of careful, regular, and engaging vocabulary instruction.

How can we introduce complex informational text into our classrooms without overwhelming our students with extensive unfamiliar and intimidating vocabulary?

For example, when Audrey was working with Loving v. Virginia in a class studying the Supreme Court decision in relation to the issue of interracial love and marriage in To Kill a Mockingbird (specifically, Dolphus Raymond), the students faced any number of vocabulary hurdles: statute, appellant, indictment, constitutional, due process, and statutory scheme, to name just a few.

If we don’t solve the vocabulary hurdle before getting into this text, reading the Loving case will be impossible; students will turn off and the connections with Mockingbird will remain inaccessible.

But a list of words and access to a dictionary is not the answer! Nor is the practice of copying and recopying new words. It’s using the words, over and over, in the kind of “massive practice” that James Moffett extols or what the National Reading Panel calls “systematic repetition.”

In a recent article in Educational Leadership, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey address the importance of “rigorous, engaging vocabulary instruction … [which] is especially important for culturally diverse students, who frequently find it challenging to master the academic language needed for school success.” Fisher and Frey emphasize the importance of “authentic use of content vocabulary.”

What is “authentic use”?

It’s when students (and teachers, but mostly students) use the new words over and over again in their own ways. The practice takes time and involves many mistakes and many misuses of the new words along the way. Teachers are there to nudge and correct and reshape students’ language use through a mix of vocabulary-in-context instruction and direct instruction. We need to offer lively and engaging collaborative work in vocabulary skits; context-clue questions that treat students like word detectives; and authentic, open-ended vocabulary questions that require students to own the new words.

Through “authentic use,” we produce learners who have gained new words in their lexicon as well as confidence about their own decoding and word acquisition skills.

This time and effort over vocabulary will pay dividends in our classrooms when we turn to our informational text(s) and in our students’ lives as they meet the challenges of new vocabulary in and outside of the language arts classroom.

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