Introduction | Instruction | Direct Instruction

Instructional Activities for Vocabulary Development:
Indirect Vocabulary Instruction

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pixVocabulary is learned from context (oral or written), but the context changes through time. Early vocabulary acquisition takes place through oral contexts (e.g., talking with adults and other children). As children get older, most of the words they encounter in oral contexts are ones that they already know. The source of vocabulary acquisition at this point is the written context or what they read.

Wide reading allows children to read new words in the context of the story and to see words used multiple times in various contexts. The problem is that it can be difficult to learn words from a written context. Bringing Words to Life describes the written context as lacking the features of oral language that enable vocabulary acquisition (e.g., intonation, body language, shared physical surroundings). Children need indirect vocabulary instruction so that they can learn strategies for figuring out the meanings of unfamiliar words that they encounter while reading. Additionally, the more you read, the greater your vocabulary. Children who are not participating in wide reading are not getting the opportunities they need in order to expand their vocabularies. Your ultimate goal is to help your students become what Stahl and Kapinus call "wordophiles."

Many of the activities described in this section can be modified and used in an oral format with younger students. Additionally, you should be cautious of your students' instructional reading levels when using these activities in a written language format, making sure that they can read the words that you are targeting. This section describes instructional techniques that can help guide your "wordophiles" in their indirect vocabulary acquisition:

Analyzing Word Parts

Students need to understand the uses and meanings of prefixes and suffixes in order to pronounce unfamiliar words, figure out meanings, and use suffixes to determine parts of speech. Deconstructing word parts can make a word more memorable and can help determine meanings of words when used in combination with contextual information. To assist your students in the use of word parts you must directly teach the most commonly used word parts and a strategy for deconstructing words. Before beginning word-part instruction, you should introduce your students to prefixes, suffixes, and roots. Students need not be concerned with learning specific terms; understanding how various word parts function together to influence word meanings is the goal.

In Easy Mini-Lessons for Building Vocabulary Robb suggests the following lesson to introduce your students to using word parts. When introducing the concept of prefixes and/or suffixes, begin by displaying common morphemes on a chart (e.g., in-, dis-, re-, -ly, and -tion) and common base words (e.g., credible, connect, and equal). By combining prefixes and suffixes and one or two base words to create new words (e.g., reconnect). Then involve students in building words using the remaining base words (e.g., disconnect, disconnection, equally, inequality). Using a think-aloud model, teach how to explain the meaning of each word using your knowledge of prefixes and suffixes. For example, explaining the word disconnection might go like this, "The prefix dis- means the opposite of; connect means joined together or related, and -tion is a suffix that indicates a noun. So, I can figure out that disconnection means not related or joined." Finally, discuss how suffixes can help you identify a word's part of speech. This discussion can be revisited throughout the year with different morphemes and base words.

Another activity to teach word parts involves a class project. Robb suggests that your class be organized into groups for week-long word study research projects. On the first day, you would write the target root, its meaning, and the language from which it comes on the top of a chart (e.g., circum). Then each group brainstorms and records a list of words that they think comes from this root into the their journals (e.g., circumference, circumnavigate, circumstance). The groups check their words in the dictionary to make sure the word comes from the root. As a challenge, students find 2-3 additional dictionary words that may come from the root (e.g., circumspect, circumvent, circumscribe). On the next day, collect words from each group on chart paper. Groups can explain the meaning of the words to the class using their knowledge of the root, prefixes, and suffixes. Have students write any words from the chart that were not on their lists in their journals. On the third day, discuss the part of speech in each word and any connections to suffixes. On day four, model how each word functions in a sentence. Finally, have students create sentences in their journal that demonstrate their ability to use the word in a meaningful context (e.g., a sentence for circumnavigate might be "The space probe took photographs as it circumnavigated the globe."). Collect sample sentences from students and record on chart paper.

Word Trees

In Teaching Vocabulary, Tomkins and Blanchfield suggest an activity that provides a visual display of word analysis. Word trees are a visual method for displaying research of derivational word study. Tomkins and Blanchfield suggest that you divide your class into groups with each group assigned a root to study. Each group brainstorms words derived from the root by consulting a dictionary and joining suffixes and prefixes to find new words. The groups then write their found words along with brief definitions for each using the meaning of the root in your definitions. Then they draw an outline of a tree and write the root at the base of the tree and each new word and its definition on individual branches. See the following example for the Latin stem dic.



Looking words up in dictionaries and recording their definitions have not proven to be effective ways to address vocabulary instruction. However, we should not therefore discount using dictionaries. They are a critical element of every classroom, if used correctly. Stahl and Kapinus suggest a few guidelines for effective dictionary use:
  • Use dictionaries the way adults do. Have your students look words up after they encounter them in context rather than before.
  • Dictionary definitions are often hard for children to understand. Help your students understand the elements of dictionary entries. Additionally, have your students rewrite definitions in their own words.
  • Consider using "nontraditional" dictionaries. Stahl and Kapinus suggest the COBUILD English Dictionary published by HarperCollins. This dictionary defines words by using them in a sentence. You can visit http://titania.cobuild.collins.co.uk for examples of entries.

Word Wizard

Stahl and Kapinus challenge us to make our students "wordofiles." Children should be encouraged to have fun with words and their meanings. The goal of Word Wizard is to get your students to notice words they encounter and be sensitive to the words learned during vocabulary instruction. The Word Wizard is a large graphic of a wizard (or chart) that is hung in your classroom. You assign vocabulary words to students (words already covered during your vocabulary instruction), and the students are then on the pursuit of hearing or reading the word in context. As they come across their target words, the student or the teacher writes the word and its context down and posts it on the chart or wizard. A variation is to add words to the wizard or chart as you discuss them in class. As your students encounter the words again, they note the context and put it on the wizard or chart. After a period of two weeks or so, you and your students determine the student who found the most words. That student is then declared the "Word Wizard" for the class.

Access to Stories

pixPerhaps the easiest and most important thing you can do to enhance vocabulary development is to provide opportunities for your students to enjoy wide reading. Researchers assert that children in third grade and beyond build their vocabulary through wide reading rather than through oral language. The management of this time is crucial to its success. Having individualized sets of books easily available to your students will help maximize their time. You can build in motivation by allowing students to have some choice in what they read (e.g., book request slips) or by charting the number and titles of books read.

Additionally, you can give your students access to stories by reading aloud. Not only has research shown that children can learn new vocabulary as efficiently from having a story read to them as when they read it themselves but reading aloud to your students provides them with access to more sophisticated stories than they can read by themselves. This is especially true of your reluctant readers.

Pictorial Case Study for Vocabulary Development

Please feel free to download and use any of the activities and information that we have provided. You may contact the Reading First office at the University of Virginia if you have any questions.

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