Building a vocabulary curriculum: what NOT to do

Building a vocabulary curriculum isn’t as basic as it sounds. It’s easy to forget how mind-boggling new words can be. For the most part, the words that form our individual lexicons are so strongly embedded in us, we can use and understand them without really having to think. When we hear a word we know, we instinctively relate it to an object or concept we’ve experienced in the world. But we weren’t born with this skill. We didn’t always connect ‘happiness’ with the emotion we feel when we’re in a good mood. We had to learn to make that connection. Without learning that connection, ‘happiness’ would still be a strange sound and a row of letters. That’s why it’s so tough being a teacher of vocabulary. It’s our job to transform gobbledegook into something with a clear and specific meaning.

With such a huge task in hand, it’s understandable that a lot of us make some common mistakes when trying to introduce a vocabulary curriculum to our schools. Here’s three we’ve seen quite a lot over the years, with explanations for why they don’t qualify as best practice.

Waiting for chance encounters

The mistake: Effective vocabulary instruction should be as proactive as possible. Nevertheless, it is quite common for the teaching of new words to become a passive affair in the classroom. Rather than deliberately creating opportunities to teach exciting, academic vocabulary to their class, many teachers rely too heavily on waiting for their students to coincidentally encounter challenging and unfamiliar words in textbooks or classroom discussions.

Why this isn’t best practice: Of course, I’m not saying we shouldn’t respond to serendipitous teaching opportunities. The ability to identify and react to these moments is a sign of conscientious teaching. But what about all the moments that don’t arise? What about the students who silently struggle, too self-conscious to bring it up in class? To help these students, we need to be ahead of the curve. Leaving vocabulary teaching entirely to chance will never be enough to ensure that our classes are learning – and, most importantly, retaining – a large range of new words. As Robert Marzano says, students need to be exposed to a new word at least six times before they can effectively remember and comprehend it. For this reason, an effective vocabulary curriculum must follow a consistent strategy, which provides students with multiple opportunities to learn, practice and review new words, so as to fully embed them into their lexicons.

The ‘check the dictionary’ approach

The mistake: Dictionaries are extremely handy, there’s no denying that. When a student comes to you with a word they don’t understand, it seems so convenient to give them a dictionary and ask them to browse for a definition. And for teachers who are trying to avoid mistake number one, challenging students to repeat and memorise definitions seems like the simplest way of ensuring active teaching of words. Alas, dictionary definitions aren’t quite as helpful as they’d seem…

Why this isn’t best practice: The problem with dictionaries is that they only provide you with a limited perspective on a word. For one thing, definitions are rarely written in language that all students can understand. If an unfamiliar word is defined using more tricky tier two language, it is unlikely to be of much use to students who already struggle with their literacy skills. Beyond this, however, is the fact that dictionaries are limited in showing how words can be used in different contexts – especially in contexts that are relevant to a student’s life experiences. As research has shown, simple memorisation and repetition of dictionary definitions is unlikely to equip students with a really nuanced understanding of the word. Instead, students should be provided with a detailed explanation, which showcases how the word can be used in appropriate example sentences relating to the student’s lived experiences.

Relying solely on reading

The mistake: I love reading. It’s basically my favourite thing to do (as I’ve spoken about here). There’s no doubt that setting dedicated reading time is beneficial for our students; it introduces them to new perspectives, and provides them with space for intellectual and emotional introspection. However, many teachers believe that simply by asking their students to read for ten, twenty or thirty minutes, this will be enough to ensure they experience the vocabulary growth they need. If only it were that simple…

Why this isn’t best practice: Unfortunately, reading by itself does not constitute as an effective vocabulary curriculum. This is because many texts can be challenging, full of lots of words that students may never have encountered before. If students are then unable to intuit the meanings of these words from context, it is unlikely they will be able to fully comprehend the text and reap all the benefits reading can offer. To ensure that students have the necessary literacy skills to actually access these tricky texts, it is therefore important to have a really direct and specific focus on teaching new vocabulary. But, of course, it’s always good to make sure your students are reading too

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