Vocabulary is a big part of our reading program, so I thought I'd take a few moments to talk about teaching vocabulary.
Over the course of the last two years, my thoughts about how to teach vocabulary, and the importance of vocabulary within the curriculum, has changed quite a bit.
One of the most important reasons why students should read a lot is that extensive reading exposes students, in fact showers students, with a wide variety of new words, while allowing students to see those words in action. When students encounter new words in their reading, I encourage students to wait, to resist the urge to pick up a dictionary and look it up right away. I tell my students that they don't have to understand every word in order to understand what they are reading. I tell my students to try to find the meaning through the usage. If they see the word only once, then that word may not be really necessary to comprehension. If they see the word many times, they should first try to see the meaning: if they still don't get it, THEN they can look it up.
In this way, we take a more natural approach to language development, while at the same time, encouraging students to read more by forcing them to spend less time with their dictionary in their hand. However, I should note that in choosing books for reading, I encourage students to choose books that are about their level, but that will challenge them. In general, I recommend the 'three word' rule. If the student picks up a book, opens it, and there are more than three words on that page that they do not know: probably that book is too difficult and they should try another book.
In the past, I applied a ten word limit to new vocabulary. I believed it was better to give students no more than ten new words a week because I believed it was better to learn and understand ten words very well, than to be given a long list of words and maybe not really learn any of them. However, I think now that this is a mistake. The most obvious error in this kind of thinking is that it presupposes that the teacher will know which words will be most useful to the student.
Now I do things quite differently. Students get new reading each week. Approximately seventy-five percent of their new vocabulary comes directly from their weekly reading. The other twenty-five percent comes from the students themselves. Students are asked to present two new, useful words each week, and all of the students are asked to study these words. The reading vocabulary is presented naturally and in context. The vocabulary list is at the back of the reading, and for each word, I provide a definition and an example sentence. When students submit their two new words each week, they are asked to write a simple definition and an example sentence. These meanings and examples are included in a weekly list to the students as well. This amounts to 60 to 100 new words each week. Now, naturally, it would be impractical to expect students to assimilate 60 to 100 new words each week. However, not all of these words are new to all of the students. Many students are already familiar with many of these words. Also, some words may be encountered more than once.
By showering students with a LOT of new words, I'm giving students greater exposure to vocabulary, and thus increasing the chances that they will find more words that are new and useful for them.
This is somewhat like the difference between a chef who chooses a meal and then gives it to everybody whether they want it, or even need it, or not, and a chef who prepares a veritable smorgasbord, a buffet wherein each person takes what they want. By showering the students with language, I'm preparing a smorgasbord of vocabulary. This increases the chances that students will find something they like and need. I was a little skeptical of this approach at first, but no longer. Experience with this system has clearly shown that students are improving their vocabulary FAR more under this system than they did under the older, more rigid ten-words-a-week system I used to use.
Now, once we introduce language, how do we help students to assimilate the new language? Well, here too, I have a system for vocabulary. Each week, students choose ten words from the list and write example sentences with those words. However, I have a few rules for these examples. First, students must not simply copy an example from the dictionary. Why? When we copy, we use our eyes and our hands, but we don't use our brains, and our brains are exactly where we're trying to put that new word.
Secondly, students must write a personal example. It shouldn't be just an example. It should be something from their memory, or something they are thinking about, something real. I tell my students: "You have this new word, 'amazing'. You could write an example sentence like 'Bob is amazing', but who is Bob? Why should I care? What makes him amazing? I've made a correct sentence ... but it has no meaning for me. I have to use this word to describe something I know: for example, 'My brother John used to make really amazing things out of cardboard.' Now, that sentence has meaning."
You see, when we make an impersonal 'example', we're only activating one area of the brain. However, as soon we apply the new language to a memory, or to something we're thinking about or worrying about, as soon as we set up an association for the word, we're starting to put that word into other areas of the brain, we're activating other areas of the brain, and we're creating cross-references and associations in our mind that will help us find that word later.
Put another way, let's say you're a librarian and you've got an index of magazine articles. You get a new article. You could just file it under one subject, and then whoever searches for articles about that one subject will find your article ... or you could file it under a variety of related subjects and topics, thereby increasing the chances that people will find that article again.
That's what I'm trying to do with vocabulary. By asking my students to activate more than one area of the brain when dealing with new words, I'm hoping to create links that will help them find that word again in the future.
I think this approach has really helped students a lot. I should also mention, for those who, like I used to be, are worried about giving their students too many new words: many of my students study not only the words I give them, but study more vocabulary on their own.