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Teaching Word Meanings as Concepts

The most effective vocabulary instruction teaches word meanings as concepts; it connects the words being taught with their context and with the students’ prior knowledge. Six techniques have proven especially effective: Concept Definition Maps, Semantic Mapping, Semantic Feature Mapping, Possible Sentences, Comparing and Contrasting, and Teaching Word Parts.

Although there is general agreement that effective vocabulary instruction should include the five components, there is no such agreement as to the most effective techniques for increasing students’ knowledge of specific words. We do know, however, that the most effective instruction teaches word meanings as concepts, using a variety of techniques to help students establish connections among context, their prior knowledge, and the concepts or words being taught.1

In this part of the booklet, we discuss specific techniques that have proven successful in teaching word meanings as concepts. These include Concept of Definition Maps, Semantic Mapping, Semantic Feature Mapping, Possible Sentences, Comparing and Contrasting, and Teaching Word Parts.

Concept of Definition Maps

Concept of Definition Maps (or Word Maps) reflect the idea that students need to have some understanding of what a definition is and how it works before they can give the meaning of a word on their own. Concept of Definition Maps are graphic displays that show common elements of a dictionary definition. These elements include (1) the category to which the word being defined belongs (What is this?), (2) some characteristics of the word (What is it like?), and (3) some specific examples and some non-examples of the word. Students refer to context, their prior knowledge, and dictionaries to find the elements needed to complete the map.

The following filled-in map for potentate was prepared to clarify the meaning of the word potentate, which appeared in a fourth-grade reading textbook.

Once the map is complete, the teacher models how to write a definition using the information on the word map. For example, “A potentate is a ruler who has a lot of power. The people do not elect potentates, and some stay in office for life. Some types of potentates are kings, dictators, and emperors.” After writing their own definitions, students can confirm them by using dictionaries to look up potentate, then revise or add to their definitions, if necessary.

A simpler variation of the Concept of Definition Map is called the Four Square activity. In this activity, each student takes a sheet of paper and folds it so there are four sections. The students write the target concept word (such as soothing) in the upper left hand section of the paper, then write some examples of the concept in the upper right section (baths, soft music, chocolate), some nonexamples of the concept in the lower right section (loud music, traffic, crying babies), and a definition in the lower left hand section (having a calming effect).

Semantic Mapping

Semantic Mapping involves a web-like graphic display. To begin instruction, students are presented with a concept that is central to understanding a selection or subject. They then brainstorm or freely associate words that are related to that concept. As students brainstorm, the teacher writes their suggestions on the board, adding words they need to learn.

For example, for a unit on weather, the teacher targeted the words meteorology, global, precipitation, barometer, and hurricane in the text students were about to read.2 These words were defined and discussed during the brainstorming session. When the students finished brainstorming, the teacher and the class together developed the following map to show the relationships among the words. The target words were highlighted, and one section of the map was left blank so that the class could fill in another category after reading the selection.

Semantic Mapping is helpful for developing students’ understanding of almost any concept. It has been used to develop concepts as diverse as polygons and the Dewey decimal system.3

Discussion seems to be a crucial element in the effectiveness of Semantic Mapping.4 For example, an individualized mapping procedure, in which students studied maps on their own and did not engage in discussion, did not work as well as a group mapping procedure. As we pointed out earlier, discussion’s value is that it seems to engage all students by making them rehearse possible answers to teacher questions.

Discussion during Semantic Mapping may be especially important for students with more limited vocabularies. These students may not know many of the related words, and thus they may learn these words along with the targeted ones. Students with more developed vocabularies can also benefit from discussion. These students may know most of the related words; therefore, seeing them will reinforce the meaning of the targeted words.

Semantic Feature Analysis

Semantic Feature Analysis also draws on students’ prior knowledge and uses discussion to elicit information about word meanings. Semantic Feature Analysis is similar to Semantic Mapping, with the exception that it uses a grid such as the one below rather than a map as a graphic display.

The left-side column of the Semantic Feature Analysis grid contains the names of members of the category to which the target concept belongs. The top row of the grid contains names of features of members of the category. Students should be encouraged to add terms either across the top or down the side during discussion. Groups of students or whole classes should discuss whether each item is an example of each concept, marking + for positive examples, - for negative examples, and ? for items which might be examples under certain circumstances. The following grid was prepared for a unit on transportation.5

As with Semantic Mapping, discussion is the key in this activity, because there are many ambiguities in determining the feature of a concept, and discussion of these ambiguities can help students clarify the concept they are learning.

Possible Sentences

The Possible Sentences technique uses both known words and new words that are related to key concepts in a reading selection. The teacher begins by choosing some six to eight words from the text that might cause difficulty for the students. (In a content area text, these words are usually key concepts in the text, but they also may be more general words that relate to those key concepts.) Then, the teacher chooses an additional four to six words that are more likely to be known by the students. These familiar words are used to help generate sentences.

The teacher writes all of these words on the board, providing a short definition of each word if desired or if necessary. Most of the time at least one student in the class has knowledge of the word that can be shared. Students are directed to make up sentences that contain at least two of these words, and that might be in the selection they are about to read. The teacher writes these sentences on the board. Both accurate and inaccurate guesses are accepted, but are not discussed at this time. When the students are finished contributing sentences (and all words are included in at least one sentence), the teacher has them read the selection.

After reading, the class then returns to the sentences on the board, and discusses whether each sentence could or could not be true based on their reading. If a sentence could be true, it is left alone. If a sentence could not be true, then the class discusses how it could be modified to make it true.

For a unit on weather, front, barometer, humidity, air mass, air pressure, and meteorology were chosen as the target words, with high, rain, clouds, and predict as the familiar words.6 The criteria for choosing the target words included a consideration of which words might be difficult for fifth graders and which words were central to the concepts taught in a specific selection. The familiar words were words that students were likely to know, and that lent themselves to logical sentences that would relate to the major concepts in the selection.

Comparing and Contrasting

Comparing and contrasting can help students extend their vocabularies by establishing relationships among concepts. A simple Venn diagram can be a good tool for comparing and contrasting such content-area concepts as republic and democracy, organic and inorganic, symphony and concerto, and so forth.

The following diagram was prepared as part of a unit on the American Revolution to compare and contrast the important concepts of protest and rebellion. The teacher first explained that whereas the American colonists thought that acts such as the Boston Tea Party were legitimate protests against British taxation, the British thought that the colonists were engaged in rebellion against their sovereign government. The difference in perceptions led to increasing tensions and eventually, revolution.

Teaching Word Parts

Teaching students to recognize and use information from word parts such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots can be an especially effective word-learning strategy for use with content area texts. These texts can contain many words that are derived from the same word parts. Although words such as misread, interdependent, and substandard can often be figured out from context, decomposing such words into known parts like mis-, read, inter-, depend, and so forth, not only makes the words themselves more memorable, but, in combination with sentence context, may be a useful strategy in determining the meaning of unknown words.

Students can aquire the meaning of word parts by inference as they read. However, although such a strategy may be part and parcel of normal reading, many students — even high school students — are unaware that breaking words into their parts can be a way to determine their meanings. In addition, students often do not know the meanings of common word parts.7

What parts to teach? A number of lists are available that contain hundreds of prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots.8 Although such lists may be useful, it is not possible or even fruitful to teach each element on each list. It seems more reasonable to teach students the most commonly used or important elements, and accompany this instruction with the teaching and modeling of a general strategy for breaking words into parts. One such strategy is to teach students to combine wordpart information with information from the sentence context.

Prefixes. Only twenty prefixes account for 97% of prefixed words that appear in printed school English.9 Teaching at least the most frequently occurring nine — if not all twenty — of these prefixes to middle school students can pay dividends in increased vocabulary learning.

Suffixes. The most frequently occurring suffixes in printed school English are inflectional endings such as noun endings (-s, -es), verb endings (-ed, -ing, -en), and adjective endings (-er, -est).10 In general, even young students use these endings in their oral language. Therefore, middle school and older students should have few problems learning and using them.

Derivational suffixes (such as -y, -ly, -ial, and -ic) appear in fewer than a quarter of all the words that contain suffixes, but they can also be useful to teach. Comprehension of relatively infrequent words such as exponential and unwieldy can be aided by knowledge of meaning of the -ial and -y suffixes.

The length of some suffixed words can occasionally overwhelm students who are less able readers. Learning to recognize the letter patterns that make common suffixes can help these students to distinguish root from suffix, thus reducing the size of the word and allowing them to focus on relevant information within the word.11 Activities such as this are a natural extension to decoding instruction that teaches students to look at chunks of words.

Other suffixes, such as -ful, and -less, are meaningful components of words, contributing to words’ meanings in much the same way as prefixes. Even suffixes without such stable meanings, such as -tion or -ly, might also help students identify words, if only to alert them to the grammatical function of words in sentences. For example, -tion indicates that a word is a noun; -ly at the end of a word indicates that it is an adverb.

The following list shows the most common prefixes and suffixes in printed school English.

Roots.When students encounter unknown words such as interdependent, readable, and substandard, they can break them into prefixes, suffixes, and familiar English roots, and combine the information this analysis reveals with conceptual information they find in the context. But what can students do with contentarea words such as biosphere, astronomy, superstructure, or deconstruct? In addition to their prefixes or suffixes, these words contain Greek or Latin roots. Researchers and educators are divided as to whether it is profitable to students to teach these roots. Some argue that the modern meanings of words (especially the most common derived words) often do not reflect the meanings of their historical roots, and that readers — particularly young students — might be misled by a literal translation of root to meaning.12 For example, knowing that -mort refers to death may help students to figure out the meaning of mortal or immortal, but it probably does not help them to determine the meaning of mortgage or mortify. Likewise, knowing that saline means salty will probably not help students get the meaning of salary, even though the words are both derived from the same root, sal. (Salt was once so valuable that it was used to pay workers.)

On the other hand, having students elaborate basic information makes it more memorable.13 Therefore, teaching roots may make new words more memorable by adding a story to their definition.

The solution may be to make a distinction between using word parts as an independent reading strategy and using word parts as a word-study tool. When students encounter new affixed words during independent reading, they will find it useful to be able to take off prefixes or suffixes and identify the word that remains. But because poor readers tend to be overwhelmed by long words, you may need to teach them how to use this strategy. For example, you might help students to figure out the meaning of the word interdependent by teaching them to cover the prefix inter-, then see if they recognize the rest of the word. If they do not recognize dependent, you can have them cover the suffix -ent, leaving depend. Providing students with practice in adding and removing prefixes and suffixes might also be useful. For example, you might take the root word dependent and add prefixes such as in- or non- to make new words.

Teaching students to further breaking down words into Latin or Greek roots is not likely to be a helpful independent reading strategy. We doubt, for example, that a struggling reader will be helped by breaking depend down further into de- and pend, even if he or she could assign these word parts meanings such as down and hang.

For the purposes of word study, however — when students have already been provided the meaning of the word — knowing the story or the history of the word may well make it more memorable.

A distinction also should be made between time spent studying those roots, especially Greek roots used in scientific terminology, that have relatively specific meanings (bio, hemo, meter), and time spent studying those roots, more often from Latin, whose meanings wander all over the map (for example, conceive, deceive, receive).

The following list contains commonly occurring Greek and Latin roots.

For content-area reading, you might find it worthwhile to make up lists specific to each area. Thus, for biology, such a list might include bio-, chromo-, eco-, soma-, and so forth.

How to teach word parts. Introductory word-part lessons should stress the idea that words can be composed of elements, such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots. These elements should be defined for students, but the emphasis should not be on learning the specific terms so much as on learning about how the parts function together to affect word meaning. For example, a lesson on un- might provide both examples of words beginning with un-, and also ask students to generate un- words of their own, including silly words. The use of imaginative extensions may not only solidify for students the meaning of un-, but also may solidify the concept of prefix in general. Providing students with some nonexamples of prefixes, such as under and uncle, also help reinforce what prefixes are and how they work.

After students understand the basic concepts of prefix, suffix, and root, teaching them specific word parts should be easier for you. You can teach specific word parts within the context of other vocabulary instruction, as part of the discussion of a particular word’s meaning, or by using explicit instruction. Such instruction should include providing a definition for the target word part, pointing out models of words using that word part, and having students read sentences containing the target parts. For prefixes, you should attempt to extend the instruction to include as many real and silly words as possible. For un-, you might use both real words such as undone, unknown, unimaginable, or unbelievable, and silly, or made-up words, such as unbig, unhamburger, unsleep, and so on. This procedure can be used with suffixes as well as prefixes. Note, however, that although prefixes should be defined, because their definitions tend to be consistent over a variety of words, providing definitions of suffixes may serve only to confuse students. For example, defining the suffixes -ance/-ence and -ment as “condition of, quality of, or state of” does little to help students understand the meaning of amendment or precedence. Adding this information to the definition of a root such as amend or precede will do little to help students understand the meaning of amendment or precedence. A more productive procedure is to give students many examples of words containing suffixes, along with the words from which they were derived.

To teach roots, you might employ a similar teaching procedure. You might also find useful to use a word-part web, such as the following one for the Greek root photo. Such webs introduce students to many new words as well as teach a few key words. Discussing derivatives as part of the introduction of a new word, with or without a web, is useful and motivational.14 Including in the discussion and web words that are relatively infrequent (such as geocentric or geode) can make target words (such as geology) more memorable for students.

Clearly there are benefits to be gained from teaching students to break words into their parts as a strategy for determining the meanings of new words. Combined with the use of context clues, this strategy seems to be especially fruitful, particularly in the content areas, where so many of the words students encounter in textbooks contain recognizable parts.