Category Archives: vocabulary

Teaching vocabulary

If kids get low grades on reading comprehension, number one on my checklist is vocabulary. If kids don’t understand the words they read, how can they possibly understand the sentences containing those words?

But how to solve this problem?

CVC means consonant-vowel-consonant, and refers to one syllable, short vowel words beginning with a consonant.

For ELL students lacking basic English words, I make flash cards: a picture on one side and the word or words used to identify that picture on the other side. A picture of a child pitching a baseball might use the words “pitch.” “toss,” or “throw.”

I start with pictures of CVC words: “cat,” hat”, and “bat,” for example. Picturing nouns is easy. Picturing verbs like “sat” and “win” is harder, and often I need to demonstrate the actions.

With my students I use the Explode the Code phonics series, so I picture vocabulary words in the order in which the student encounters the words in the series. To these I add a few sight (Dolch) words so that we can make sentences, such as “A cat is not a dog.”

What I have discovered is that students can identify the pictures with just a bit of study, but they cannot use the words in sentences. When they see the word “pitch” they can move their arms in  pitching motions, but they cannot make a sentence using the word “pitch.”

Even for students learning advanced vocabulary words, like in the Wordly Wise series, this is true. They can define a word using a synonym but they have trouble using the word in a meaningful sentence.  (For many students using this series in school, their teachers do not assign the part of the lesson in which students write the new words in sentences, a big mistake.)

When I review already learned vocabulary words, I ask for synonyms, but also for usage. “It is a cat” works for beginning ELL learners. But “It is a catapult” does not work for older ELL students or for English-speaking students.

Another method to increase ELL learners’ vocabulary is to use picture word books meant for preschoolers. Because I want to use the vocabulary my students study to teach them reading, I prefer to begin with CVC words even though a word like “pizza” might be more frequently heard.

This Kid Can’t Read

Before you can help students to read, you need to know why they can’t read. An umbrella statement like, “This kid can’t read” is too broad to be helpful. You need to be more specific in identifying the problem. For example,

• Does she know how to read maps, charts, graphs and political cartoons?

• Can she decode CVC, CVCe and other one-syllable words?

• Can she segment and pronounce two-, three-, and four-syllable words?

• Does she struggle so much with decoding English sounds that she cannot take in meaning?

• Is her English vocabulary limited?

• Does she recognize prefixes, suffixes and root words?

• Does she apply punctuation when she reads?

• Does she read in a monotone without inflection or expression?

• Does she monitor her understanding as she reads, rereading whenever she realizes she doesn’t understand?

• Does she know how to use context clues?

• Can she predict what will happen next as she reads?

• Does she make inferences?

• Can she identify the main idea in a reading passage?

• Can she summarize a passage, paraphrasing?

• Can she distinguish between important details and less important details?

• Can she detect author bias?

• Does she know how to think deeply?

• Does she believe she can read?

Reading problems can be divided into dozens of smaller, specific problems. And those smaller problems can be tackled—and usually solved—by a skilled teacher using appropriate strategies.

Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

Important academic words for K-2 students to learn

Discouraged child thinks there are too many words in a book she is readingLittle children need to learn so many words, but 15 are especially important for answering questions in school and on tests.  For example, if students think “compare” means to show how two things are different, they will answer a test question incorrectly.  Knowing the meaning of direction words is vital.

 

According to Marilee Sprenger*, who analyzed the Common Core standards and other sources to develop this list, the words for kindergarteners, first graders and second graders are

  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Describe
  • Distinguish
  • Identify
  • Retell
  • Demonstrate
  • Determine
  • Draw
  • Explain
  • Locate
  • Suggest
  • Support
  • Comprehend, and
  • Develop

These words are not everyday words for little children.  Children need to learn these words’ meanings from teachers and parents.  How?

First the adult says the word properly and explains what it means, using it in the context of something the children already know.  Next the children repeat the explanation, paraphrasing the adult’s explanation and using an example of their own.  Children then might draw a picture of the word’s meaning to show that they understand.  The adult should use the word many times and encourage students to write down the word and its meaning.  The adult should continue to use the word in situations where students must act to show if they understand the word.  Finally, occasional word games, like vocabulary bees and word BINGO games, reinforce the word and its meaning.**

Sometimes we suppose students know words because they have heard them over and over.  But that does not mean they know them.  I worked with a seventh grader who thought “compare” means “contrast.”  It’s important for us to take the time to teach these words so when children encounter them as directions for homework, quizzes or tests, they can perform correctly.

*Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core; 55 words that make or break student understanding,  by Sprenger, 2013

**Building Academic Vocabulary:  Teacher’s Manual by Marzano and Pickering, 2005

What’s the right age to read Harry Potter?

Harry Potter turns 31 tomorrow, July 31, a good time to ask if there is a right age for children to read the Harry Potter books.


When the books were first published, Harry was 11, and The Sorcerer’s Stone was more fantasy and magic—owls who delivered mail, a sorting hat, photos who talked—than menacing evil.  No need for concern.  But later books focused on evil and Harry’s fight to conquer it.  Much tougher reading.

The first book came out in 1997; the second in 1998; the third in 1999; the fourth in 2000; the fifth in 2003; the sixth in 2005; and the seventh in 2007.  Kids who read the first book when they were eight couldn’t read the fifth book until they were 18 and, presumably, mature enough to handle its content.

But today, voracious eight year olds can devour the series in a month or two.  Should they?

Here are some suggestions to consider if you have a child coming of age to read Harry Potter.

Book one:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Harry turns 11.  Kids usually like to read about child characters who are slightly older than they are, so readers 8,  9, 10, and 11 years old (usually, third, fourth and fifth graders) might enjoy the first book.

However, a child’s reading level needs to be considered.  Some third graders are just starting chapter books while others have been reading chapter books since kindergarten.  Lagging readers might miss out on much of the meaning in Harry Potter books because of a lack of vocabulary or difficulty with inferences.  For them it might be better to wait.

Precocious readers, on the other hand, might be able to handle the first Harry Potter book with ease.  Two scary parts (a troll fight and a final fight between Harry and Voldemort) are a little scary, but not scarier than what children have been exposed to in the evening news or in video games.  They will miss some of the cultural differences between British writing and American writing (such as a cupboard in London being a closet in the US) but they will still understand what is important.

A child’s emotional resilience needs to be evaluated too.  If children suffer nightmares from TV shows or scary picture books, Harry Potter novels might not be a good choice until the children are older.  Or you could tell them when they start the first book that by the end of the last book Voldemort is dead and Harry is alive.  But that takes some of the suspense from the reading.

Book two:  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  Lexile 940 (grades 5-6 reading level)

If a child can read book one, that child is ready for book two.  It has another fight scene at the end, but in other ways The Chamber of Secrets is a fanciful children’s story like book one.

Book three:   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Ditto for books one and two except that the concept of a serial killer is introduced.  This concept foreshadows events in a later book.

Book four:  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Two minor characters die in this book right in front of the reader’s eyes.  Also, children learn that some people cannot be trusted when one such person tries to lure Harry away.  The tone of this book is darker than the previous three, and for that reason precocious first and second graders probably shouldn’t read it, and sensitive third and fourth graders might not be emotionally ready. As a parent, you should be prepared to discuss the themes of death and trustworthiness with your children before you let them read book four.  I recommend waiting until fifth grade or middle school for this book.

Book five:   Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  Lexile 950 (grades 5-7 reading level)

Someone Harry loves dies in this book.  Its tone is about the same as book four, that is, darker than in the first three books.  Harry is 15, indicating that readers should probably be almost that age too.  Postpone this book until middle grades for most children.

Book six:   Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Lexile 1030 (grades 6-8 reading level)

Book six is too tough for elementary school children and even for some middle grades children.  Harry, 16, must take on enormous responsibilities and he has no one to protect him.  No place is safe.  Another scary idea is that people exist who murder for the heck of it—not for a rational reason but just because. At the end of the book a pivotal character dies a terrible death at the hands of another pivotal character. Harry vows to avenge his friend’s death.

Book seven:   Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2  Lexile 980 (grades 6-7 reading level)

More deaths occur, but none so chilling as at the end of book six.  A reader who can stomach book six can stomach book seven.  Read during late middle grades or high school.

How to help children figure out new vocabulary words when they read

Children need strategies to learn new vocabulary words when they encounter such words in their reading.  Here are several strategies:

Definitions: Sometimes, definitions are given immediately after a new word.  Definitions can be separated from the word with a comma (An avalanche, a quick moving mass of snow,), with a dash (An avalanche—a quick-moving mass of snow—), with the words “that is” (An avalanche, that is a quick-moving mass of snow) or with the Latin abbreviation for that is, i.e. (An avalanche, i.e. a quick-moving mass of snow,).

Comparisons: Sometimes a word is compared to another word or idea which is similar.  “A zebra is similar to a wild horse but with different markings.”

Contrasts: Sometimes a word is contrasted with another word or idea which is different from the new word.  “A mug differs from a tea cup because the mug is taller and contains more liquid.”

Context clues: Sometimes a new word can be learned from other words in the same sentence or nearby sentences.  “The car crash caused one fatality.  A woman not wearing her seat belt died.”

Examples:  Sometimes a word is explained by the example which follows it.  “Academic vocabulary is the kind tested on the SAT and ACT.  Some examples include obstacle, complement and mollify.”

Similarity to a known word: Sometimes a word will sound like or remind a student of another word.  “The child clasped her mother’s hand.”  Clasped sounds like “grasped.”

How to recognize these clues to the meaning of new words needs to be taught to children, and they need practice using each clue.  Knowing the clues will improve children’s reading comprehension, since comprehension depends so much on understanding vocabulary.

Vocabulary comes in three tiers

Educated people use a three-tiered vocabulary, according to research* done thirty years ago.

  • Tier 1 words include basic words, the working vocabulary The X factor in type facesof little children. Children do not need to be taught these words; they learn them from interacting with their caretakers and other children.  In kindergarten, some of these words are called sight words.  Usually these words do not have multiple meanings.  Such words include “no,” “dad” and “dog.”

  • Tier 2 words include words we use frequently as adults but which little children do not use. These “adult” words can be used in many contexts.  They are harder for children to learn since they have multiple meanings.  Tier 2 words add detail to our speech and writing and are necessary to learn in order to understand what we read.  ”Obvious,” “complex” and “verify” are examples.
  • Tier 3 words are used infrequently, but are necessary to speak and to read about particular areas of study. In an English class, such words might include “predicate,” “narrator” and “sonnet.”  In a medical journal such words or phrases might include “prefrontal cortex,” “neuroplasticity” and “synapses.”  These are often “idea” words used as scaffolding to build further knowledge.

The Common Core State Standards are asking teachers to teach and use Tier 3 words more.  Instead of saying the “action word,” teachers say the “verb.”  Instead of asking for the “total,” teachers ask for the “sum.”

What this means is that students, beginning in primary grades, are being taught Tier 3 vocabulary words.  Children are expected to know what “analyze” and “cite” mean, and they are expected to use those words, not euphemisms, in explaining their thinking or behavior.  And when words like those appear on state-wide, end-of-year exams, children are expected to know what they mean and know how to respond accordingly.

You, as parents, can reinforce Tier 3 vocabulary by using appropriate academic vocabulary with your children.  Harry Potter is the protagonist of his stories.  Three and two are factors of six.  Anne Frank’s diary is a primary source.  Arthropods have an exoskeleton.

Children need to master certain Tier 3 words in order to understand directions from teachers and directions on tests.  We will talk more about these words in future blogs.

*Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L.  (2002).  Bringing words to life.  New York:  Guilford.