During the course of a session last week, an ELL student asked me what strategies I recommended for improving vocabulary. She wanted to be able to understand and use more words, but didn’t know how to go about it. While I have certainly seen the results of ramshackle vocabularies, I had never been asked that particular question before, so I didn’t have a ready, thoughtful answer for her. I told the student what I personally have done to help my vocabulary (look up unfamiliar words that I encounter and keep a list with their definitions), but was left wondering what other or better strategies are available, what principles should be kept in mind, and how I can help students use more meaningful words.
In Larry Bate’s “Responsible Vocabulary Word Selection: Turning the Tide of 50-cent Words,” he begins by discussing the type of vocabulary words that are actually useful to students. In general, high-frequency words of a middling difficulty are much more worthwhile than words that are impressive but obscure. Not only that, but “…research indicates that word knowledge is sequential,” so it is important to fully comprehend very basic words before even attempting to build a versatile vocabulary. (70) Nonetheless, these principles are not usually reflected in standardized vocabulary lists, which Bate’s says appear to have been selected “using a blindfold and a dartboard.” (69) So for the student who is looking to improve their writing and comprehension, a more organic method will likely prove helpful.
The primary principle to keep in mind is that a word will be easier to learn and implement if there is at least one familiar element to it. At its simplest, this applies to words that have a root, prefix, or other component that the student understands already. But it also applies to words that the student has read or seen frequently, words that can be thematically associated with other words, and for ELL students, words that are akin to words in their native tongue.
Because of the aid that familiarity gives to learning, the best place to find new vocabulary is not the dictionary, but in students’ individual contexts. What words are their teachers using? What about their peers? What vocabulary is in the books they are reading? If you and they know where to look for helpful acquisitions, the first step is taken care of. The second step is to make those discoveries usable. In “Vocabulary in Action: Strategies for Turning Students Into Wordsmiths,” Amy Hardwick-Ivey suggests a number of strategies for learning and remembering words by building associations. Two of them particularly struck my fancy. First, drawing a picture or illustration of a word can help make that word memorable by giving a non-verbal aid, and can even help someone process what it means. Similarly, creating a short rhyme or poem that uses the word can both help to solidify an understanding of the word and make it easier to recall.
I may never have a chance to use this information in a session. For that matter, I may never have someone ask me about vocabulary again. Nonetheless, I think that vocabulary is a critical component of writing, and that pointing students towards the world of words that is at their fingertips and helping them know how to understand it better can ultimately foster greater comprehension, better writing, and increased confidence.
Amy R. Hardwick-Ivey. “Vocabulary in Action: Strategies for Turning Students Into Wordsmiths.” The English Journal , Vol. 97, No. 4 (Mar., 2008), pp. 56-61 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Article. Web. 6 March 2013.
Larry Bates. “Responsible Vocabulary Word Selection: Turning the Tide of 50-cent Words.” The English Journal , Vol. 97, No. 4 (Mar., 2008), pp. 68-76 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 6 March 2013.