We don’t KNOW words from Adam…

 I hate when this happens!
The other day I was having a conversation with my daughter about foster kids and the kinds of life experiences that are most common to them. I began my typical consulting-mother/teacher sort of exchange and got stuck…I couldn’t for the life of me come up with the word I KNEW I wanted to use and that I KNEW I KNEW, to finish my thoughts!

If this hasn’t happened to you yet…you are one of the few.

So does this mean I don’t KNOW the word? Of course not…believe it or not (I’m embarrassed here) the word was “betrayed.”

And my point?
So what does it mean to “know” a word? It turns out it does not have to be a whole lot! At least not when it comes to teaching a student a new word.

Here’s what they say…
There was a ton of research in the 80’s and 90’s and the general consensus was that the brain collects word knowledge along a spectrum of understanding, with no end to the refining of one’s understanding of the word. My favorite list of stages comes from Edgar Dale’s work, author of ‘The Living Word Vocabulary’ (1965).

  1. No knowledge of the word or even its existence.
  2. Awareness that the word exists without knowing its meaning.
  3. A sense of what the word means in context.
  4. A richer understanding that allows us to use the word.

Others have refined the pit stops along the continuum-of-word-understanding to include things like pronunciation, definition, function, derivatives, multiple meanings, connotations, etc.
(Uh oh…I’m not sure where my lapse in memory fits in here!)

Where does this leave us teachers?
Where does our role as teachers fit in? How far along the continuum are we supposed to bring our students. We are pressed for time. We have an overload of learning targets placed on us. We have students in our sixth grade classrooms with anywhere from a second grade vocabulary to high school or above. We know students can learn some new words from just reading, but we also have students stuck at low reading levels unable to build on their limited knowledge.

Marzano tells us,”The importance of direct vocabulary instruction cannot be overstated.”

E. D. Hirsch reminds us that “…correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.”

And the answer is…
Three fold:

  1. Teach new words in context, with multiple exposures (6). Make time for it! This will get them to Dale’s stage 3.
  2. Provide lots of general practice in using context clues, trusting their guts, building confidence in their ability to make good guesses. This will help them learn more from their reading.
  3. Make word learning something that is engaging, stimulating, motivating, and feels like success. Convince them that greater word knowledge can improve their life choices! (See the resources in my Worder Nerds activity.)

(Note: Although going over definitions is a part of this, teaching definitions is not!)

In other words…
Our job is to get them started on the continuum and expose them to many opportunities for experiencing the words they are learning. And when we assess students for word learning we should not be testing their memory of a definition but their ability to make sense of the word in context.

So tell me:
Which one of the three teaching strategies above gives you the greatest challenge? Please share in the comment box below! Be specific as to why and the nature of the struggles you face. Your challenges represent all of us!

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