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Developing “Student-Owned” Vocabulary

Corwin Press

Students should learn specific vocabulary and academic language to comprehend content text, but they should also become independent in understanding and owning vocabulary. This article offers tips for developing students’ “vocabulary ownership.”

The most common strategy for learning vocabulary is for students to look up the definitions in the glossary or dictionary and write them down. Unfortunately, this is the least effective method for learning vocabulary and can consume 20-30 minutes of class time on a regular basis. Simply stated, the most effective way to directly instruct vocabulary is for the teacher to introduce target words, briefly explain them, and provide a nonlinguistic representation. Use the tips below to deliver effective vocabulary instruction in the classroom.

Tips for developing vocabulary (grades 4-12)

Tips for English, Language Arts and Content Areas
  • Students should read, read, read, read, a variety of texts.
  • Use all the processes of literacy in introducing new vocabulary: reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, thinking, and multiple-symbol systems.
  • Use new vocabulary in multiple ways as many as 30 times.
  • Ask students to define in their own words and illustrate the word on a 5 x 7 card: post the card on the bulletin board. Or — students make their own personal word wall in their notebooks.
  • Think of the word that best represents the topic being studied. Write it on a card. Ask students to form small groups and make a concept map of the cards showing relationships of each of the words to one another. Post the concept maps and share them. Students will have built on prior knowledge and expanded vocabulary.
  • Before reading the text, give pairs of students cards with one word on each card. The students are to decide what the word means and then how to teach it to the other students through role-playing, demonstration, art, and so on. Each pair teaches the word to the remainder of the class, and no one will forget the meanings.
  • Ask students to look at the concept map. What three conclusions can they draw from the concept map? Share with your neighbor. Add your neighbor’s conclusions to your list if they are different from yours.
  • Vocabulary Sort: Print vocabulary on one color of paper and definitions on another color. Cut out each vocabulary and definition. Place one complete set in a bag, making enough bags for each pair of students in the class. Give each pair of students a bag of words and del1nitions. Give them 5 minutes to sort the vocabulary and definitions. After 5 minutes, tell the students to take out their notes and textbook and find the ones that were not matched and check those they think are correct.

Tips for Language Arts, Reading and Intensive Reading
  • For 1 minute list all the words that sound like, or are in the category of, or are a synonym for, antonym for, homophone for__________.
  • Take 2 minutes and list all the prefixes and suffixes that you can think of. Then for 2 minutes compare them to your neighbor’s. Now take 1 minute and write what each means.
  • Popcorn Vocabulary: Give each student a card with a new word and meaning. Each student reads orally for the class the word and meaning. Time how long it takes for the class to complete the readings. Do this each day and chart how the speed increases working on vocabulary and fiuency. Create a competition in increasing speed among classes of the same content and grade.
  • Ask students to close their eyes and visualize the word wall of roots, prefixes, and suffixes. How many words can they make with what they visualize? Compare your list to your partner’s for 2 minutes. Question any words that do not seem to make sense or that you are not sure of.
  • Below-grade-level readers: After providing a short list of vocabulary words, ask the students to rate each word based on their prior knowledge. Discussing their ratings provides a quick assessment of what they know. Use the discussion to introduce each word and its meaning.
    1 = I know the word and its meaning.
    2 = I know the word, but I am not sure of the meaning.

    3 = I have seen the word, but I don’t know what it means.

    4= I have never seen the word.

Taylor, R. (2007). Improving reading, writing and content learning for students in grades 4-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Improving Reading, Writing, and Content Learning for Students in Grades 4-12