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Vocabulary Development 
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I.  Definition of Training Piece

A.  Purpose for Instructor

Extensive research reports the relationship between vocabulary and comprehension. However, time constraints and questions concerning direct instruction versus student-directed learning affect whether or not an instructor includes vocabulary instruction. There never seems to be enough time in any course to include every important piece of instruction. Direct vocabulary instruction is sometimes sacrificed to make room for other objectives and activities. This is a costly sacrifice, however, because college students encounter a considerable amount of content-specific vocabulary. They need a repertoire of strategies for dealing with unfamiliar terms.

Because a reader's comprehension of words predicts the reader's comprehension of text, it is important that students learn vocabulary. Activities in this piece will address issues such as: why it is important to find time to teach vocabulary; how to decide which vocabulary to teach; how to evaluate word lists; and how to make vocabulary learning effective.

B.  Material covered

This training piece will include research findings, guidelines for effective instruction, activities and internet resources. From these, an instructor can discover ways to integrate vocabulary into existing lessons and to present students with a variety of approaches for handling new words.

II.  Foundation

A.  Definition of Concept and Theory

Virtually all assessments of reading include some vocabulary testing, whether it is of isolated words or terms in context. At the lowest grade / reading levels, specific terms are sometimes identified as related to specific levels. Graded readers (basal) list these and students may progress from one level to the next according to their ability to recognize them. Good readers learn to recognize them on sight.

Word attack strategies emphasize sound-symbol correspondence and phonics generalizations. For example, a reader should be able to make the connection between the letters "p-e-t" and their sounds to recognize the word "pet." In addition, a reader should know that the addition of the letter "e" to the end of "pet" will make "Pete." The addition of a final "e" after a vowel and a consonant generally causes the vowel to become "long" and the final "e" to become silent. Recognition of that generalization is helpful to readers of English. These two concepts are integral to basic reading. As the level of difficulty in materials increase, however, the number of potentially unfamiliar words grows exponentially, and good readers need to develop a repertoire of more sophisticated word attack approaches including the use of context clues, the use of structural analysis, and the effective use of unabridged dictionaries. Students also need to learn how to acquire vocabulary independently and to develop an awareness of multiple meaning words.

B.  Summary of Relevant Research

1.  Extensive reading can increase direct vocabulary knowledge, but direct instruction that engages the student in the construction of word meaning using context and prior knowledge is effective for learning specific vocabulary and for improving comprehension of related materials. Nelson-Herber, Joan. "Expanding and refining vocabulary in content areas." Journal of Reading, April, 1986: 626-633.

2.  Certain questions should guide a teacher's decisions regarding which vocabulary should be taught.

  1. Ask how important a word is likely to be to the students. For example, is it important to understanding the text? Is it a word, which may be recognized with a different meaning in a different context? Is it a word a student is likely to encounter again?
  2. Ask how likely it is that the student will get the meaning of the word from context. Is it well defined in context or does the author assume understanding of the meaning?
  3. Ask how likely it is that the student already knows the word at some level. Is it totally known, partially known, or totally unknown?
Stahl, Steven. "Three principles of effective vocabulary instruction." Journal of Reading, April, 1986: 662-668.

3.  When students are shown relevant pictures, definitions, and examples, their long-term memory of the words is improved.
Pria, Melva and Arleen Finkelstein. "Pictures improve memory of SAT vocabulary words." Journal of Reading, October 1994: 134-135.

4.  Students may understand some concepts better if they use objects to explain them. Simple manipulative objects may be used as props.
Petrick, Pamela Bondi. "Creative vocabulary instruction in the content area." Journal of Reading, March, 1992: 481-482.

5.  The most effective vocabulary instruction is the kind that also improves comprehension. An effective program included: directing students to self-select words directly related to important elements of a selection; teaching the words in context; and providing multiple sessions of practice using the words.
Dole, Janice, et al. "Teaching vocabulary within the context of literature." Journal of Reading, March, 1995: 452-460.

6. Recent research repeatedly recognizes these seven topics as critical:

  • An emphasis on definitional and contextual knowledge
  • Students' active and elaborate processing
  • Vocabulary in context
  • Students' interest
  • Intense instruction
  • Instruction which is "...teacher-directed with the use of multiple examples and repeated exposure to words, cumulative review in differing contexts, and a variety of expressive activities that require the students' active involvement."
  • A language-rich environment
  • Wide reading

Flippo, Rona F. and David C. Caverly, eds. Handbook of College Reading and Study Strategy Research. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.

III.  Benefits

A.  A college professor may readily admit the importance of content specific vocabulary for a course but may choose to skip direct instruction. One reason for this is the lack of instructional time; another is the viewpoint that vocabulary acquisition is the responsibility of the student. However, the most immediate result of direct instruction is that students' comprehension will improve. Time spent on teaching the meaning of terms will replace time spent on explaining misunderstandings about text that are the direct result of unfamiliar vocabulary. Time spent on modeling strategies will result in empowered students. They can acquire new vocabulary with greater ease and efficiency once they know how. Strategies described here emphasize brevity, meaningfulness, and active learning on the part of the student. The exercises can be done with or without teacher direction. Each can be completed by an individual, a group, or a class.

B.  Students will benefit from these activities because the result will be more independence. If a student learns how to apply a formula for determining the meaning of a word, then that student is not dependent on a teacher to define it. If a student learns a technique for remembering the meaning of a word, then he or she can own that word. And finally, if a student learns about resources for acquiring new vocabulary, then that student is more likely to learn independently.

IV.  Implementation
A.  Exploration exercises for instructor

  1. Activity: Use context to unlock meaning.
    Define gyxpx.
    You say you can't do it?
    Well, then here it is in a sentence. Perhaps context will help.
    The gyxpx was broken.
    What? You still don't know it? OK, here is some more contexts.
    The new secretary was fast as the blazes on the gyxpx.
    Ah, now you have an idea, right? It might be some type of word processor, or a calculator, or even a photocopy machine. Would it help if you knew the gyxpx has a shift key that keeps sticking? That makes it pretty clear that the gyxpx is something with a keyboard that is used in an office.
    The strategy that helped you figure it out was the use of context clues. There won't always be helpful context clues for a word, but it's a good place to start when a word is unknown.
  2. Activity: Use sound to unlock meaning.
    Pronounce "hors d'oeuvre."
    You say you can't do it? Have you ever eaten an appetizer? Then you have eaten an hors d'oeuvre. It sounds like OR - DURV.
    Pronounce "bologna," "canoe," "ghost," and "rhythm."
    You may not have recognized these words the first time you encountered them in print. Chances are, though, that you recognized them when you heard them. Asking someone to pronounce a word or looking up the pronunciation in a dictionary can help you recognize words as well.
  3. Activity: Use structure to unlock meaning.
    If the Greek word   PHIL means love
          BIBLIO means book
    Then what does BIBLIOPHILE mean? It is a lover of books.
    If the Greek word   GRAPH means write
    Then what does BIBLIOGRAPHY mean? It is a written list of books.
    If the Greek word   CHOR means dance Then what does CHOREOGRAPH mean? It is the writing of a story in dance.
    If you understand the structure of a word, you may be able to use it to decipher its meaning. Word elements can be part of a strategy.
  4. Activity: Use a dictionary to unlock meaning.
    You are now a History professor. Ask your students to define occupation.
    a.  an activity in which one engages
    b.  the principal business of one's life
    c.  the holding and control of an area by a foreign military force

    You are now a Psychology professor. Ask your students to define ego.
    a.  the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world
    b.  self-esteem
    c.  the conscious part of the personality that is derived from the id through contacts with reality

    You are now an English professor. Tell your students they are responsible for knowing this term: climax.
    a.  a figure of speech in which a series of phrases or sentences is arranged in ascending order of rhetorical forcefulness
    b.  the highest point
    c.  the point of highest dramatic tension or a major turning point in the action (as of a play)
    The addition of some context may help them to understand these terms, but they probably think they already know them. Where can you direct them to get the most precise meaning? Teach them how to use a dictionary effectively and you will make a great contribution to their knowledge of vocabulary.

B.  Student exercises

  1. K-W-L with word elements
    Determine what students know, want to know, and have learned with regard to word elements or structural analysis. Chart their response in 3 columns with K-W-L at the top.
  2. Known-Unknown
    Determine what particular words students know or need to learn. Present them with a list of words and have them arrange them in columns of words that seem totally familiar, somewhat unfamiliar, and totally unfamiliar. Another option is to present the words on an overhead and ask students to make a mark next to words they want to learn or to place a small sticker next to words that are unknown.
  3. Objects in a Bag
    Collect a group of unrelated small objects such as coins, magnets, items from miniature dollhouses, keys, buttons, etc. Ask students to use an item or pairs of items to illustrate their understanding of a term or expression. For example, a student used a miniature broom to present the idiom, "make a clean sweep." This activity requires deep processing.
  4. Communal Writing
    Identify a set of words necessary for comprehension of a selection. Provide both the definition and a sentence with helpful context to a group of students. Discuss the terms. Direct them to write a selection using the words and then to share with other groups. Then have them read the selection, paying particular attention to the ways in which the author used the words.
  5. CSSD is a formula that can help students acquire vocabulary independently. It refers to using the context, the sound, the structure, and as a last resort, the dictionary to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words. After students learn the formula, they can apply it to any situation. Provide them with practice by giving them a selection with underlined words. Ask them to define the words and then to declare which of the steps helped them unlock the meanings. Were they able to figure it out with the context? Did "sounding it out" or asking someone to pronounce it help? Were there some elements that could be understood through structural analysis? Did they have to resort to the dictionary?
  6. A personal dictionary requires students to self-select the terms to be learned. Direct students to copy the unfamiliar word in its entire context, followed by: its pronunciation, part of speech, definition according to how it is used in the sentence, and a sample sentence showing their understanding of the word.
  7. Pictures can be useful in helping students to remember definitions. One approach is to distribute a range of pictures and a stack of sticky notes and then to have the students look for pictures that can be associated with the words. They should use the sticky notes to write the words. These can be displayed and/or they can be used over and over. Another approach is to help students search for pictures in collections of clip art or via the internet to associate with the words.
  8. Rewriting is similar to translating. Give students a poem with high level vocabulary. Ask them to rewrite each line using their own words. Discuss whether their rewrites evoke the same tone and describe with the same clarity.

Skill Connections:

  1. Paired Courses: Pairing a vocabulary-rich content course with a reading or study skills course assists students to understand the importance and application of vocabulary. Visit the Paired Courses module for examples of content courses to be used in pairing and information about how to get started.
  2. Integrating Technology: Technology resources for assisting students to acquire vocabulary abound including computer software and internet dictionaries, interactive reading exercises and pronunciation guides. Students can also use Power Point or other presentation software to create visual representations of vocabulary words. The Integrating Technology module provides hints for finding and using these resources. (create link)
V.  Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Should I give students lists of content specific words and tell them to look them up in the dictionary?

A: Modify this assignment if you must require students to learn a large set of terms. Present each word with a sentence (or 2) using the word. Follow up with an activity that allows the students to have an active role in remembering the word.

Q: Will students increase their vocabulary knowledge simply by reading?

A: Yes, if the subject matter is wide (varied) and deep (requiring critical thinking). However, direct instruction is more effective.

Q: Are good quality commercial materials available for vocabulary instruction?

A: There is a plethora of vocabulary materials on the market and many are excellent.

Give this one a look: The World of Words, 5th edition, by Margaret Richek, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 2000.

Peruse the publisher's exhibits at conferences in your area for some additional titles. Follow some guidelines when you evaluate these materials. Check to see whether the words are high frequency terms; whether pronunciation guides and meaningful context are provided; whether meaningful and interesting practices are plentiful; and whether strategies for independent learning are modeled.

VI.  Helpful resources

A.  Web sites
Wordplay! This site keeps moving around, but it is worth hunting for. It includes links to numerous other sites and offers an acronym finder, a translator, a mnemonics page, a site called American Slanguage (learn to talk like the locals) and games.
Idioms, fun quizzes, discussion board, quotes, and grammar links.
Latin and Greek word elements, related activities, stories, and cool graphics
What Richard Lederer, the author of this site does not know about the quirks of English, we do not need to know!
Weird words. Learn why 'humdudgeon" means "an imaginary illness' and read Michael Quinion's essays on popular language (British emphasis).
This is the place to do a quick check of a definition.
Materials source plus idioms and a dictionary. Sponsored by Harper Collins and the Department of English at Birmingham University. It hosts a definition guessing game that is not for the faint of heart!
Vocabulary training exercises in English, Spanish, German and French: grammar, word lists, business vocabulary, and much more.
Prepare for the SAT, GED, ACT. Three levels of activities, themed puzzles, interactive lesson plans. Earn your "diploma" at Vocabulary University.

B.  Software
1. Power Point- Available through Microsoft and can be ordered online at

2. Inspiration - Download a free copy for 30 days at

C.  Workshop Information to attend a workshop on this topic or bring one to your campus, visit this site or call Faculty Training at (800) 856-5727.

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