Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Word Nerds Unite! Vocabulary Instruction in Secondary Schools

"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."  ― George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

So wrote Orwell in 1946. Could you imagine what Orwell might say in the age of instant messages, text messages, emoticons, and Twitter? Actually, Orwell might have liked Twitter, as he argued for brevity, and careful use of the English language, as his 6 rules illustrate:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (Orwell, 1946)
Many teachers today lament the decline of the English language; but, as educators, are we prepared to take action? It's not enough to cringe at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe or the sound of a mispronounced word.  Just as I believe that every teacher is a teacher of reading, I believe that every teacher is a teacher of vocabulary.

An excellent American educator, author, and recent workshop presenter at the Reading for the Love of It Conference in Toronto, Janet Allen, has taken up the torch and is willing to shine a light on vocabulary instruction. Similar to Orwell, Allen recognizes that "language is power, and those who can use language effectively have an advantage over those who can't or don't" (2007, 102). Moreover, Allen argues that
"...our goal as educators has to include making sure students have access to the words for speaking and writing. This belief that we are teaching content for transfer's sake rather than content for content's sake will influence every instructional decision..." (2007, 102)
I've  always struggled with vocabulary building in the classroom; I'm often left wondering if my disjointed application of word games and strategies works, because, like Allen posits, I don't see the transfer of new words to students' vocabularies. Interestingly, I wonder if I was more successful in this transfer of skill outside of the English classroom: I'm thinking back to lessons in my Canadian Law classes when I spent considerable time helping students decode the language (which relies heavily on Latin). My students were able to integrate phrases like actus reus and mens rea into their vocabulary during the course; my hope is that when they see these phrases in news articles about Canadian criminal law, they'll recognize them. Allen confirms, for me, the idea that we have to include vocabulary comprehension in all subject areas: "Teaching vocabulary is teaching new labels for known or familiar concepts; teaching concepts is teaching students about something for which they currently have little or no understanding or familiarity" (Allen, 2007, 92).

What to do?

Allen suggests, in her workshop (and readings below),  four comprehensive vocabulary programs to help students build vocabulary, in all of their classes, regardless of subject (often, to prove her point, she uses science and history examples).

  1. foster word consciousness: for example, use word walls (and have students keep their own version in their notebooks); 
  2. teach individual words (aim for ~350 new words a year): take 5 minutes during class to teach "stopper" words, or words that student will struggle with
  3. teach strategies to learn new words independently: explicitly model how to use context clues -look for local context (inside the word with roots, prefixes, suffixes), brain/ background knowledge, use sentence context, and then global context (meaning everywhere else in the text).
  4. increase the amount of reading

These four practices are fairly straightforward and present a viable solution to Allen's (and Orwell's) assertion that "vocabulary instruction is at least one of those foundational practices that continues to fall short of meeting its goal: producing students who can read, write, and communicate effectively because they have access to a large reservoir of words" (Allen, 2007, 88). It is certainly possible to not only improve our vocabulary instruction in schools, but also to create the delight that comes from word play and the understanding of complex texts. Students love the playfulness that can be generated through word of the day challenges or word games at the start of a class.

Allen, J. (2014). "What gets in the Way of Success in Reading?" Workshop at Reading for the Love of It Conference. Feb. 20,     2014.
Allen, J. (2007). “Mastering the Art of Effective Vocabulary Instruction” Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. K. Beers, R.E. Probst, L. Rief, Eds. pp. 87-104.
Allen, J. (2000). Yellow Brick Roads: Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading 4-12Markham: Pembroke Publishers.
Allen, J. (1999). Words, words, words: Teaching vocabulary in grades 4-12. Markham: Pembroke Publishers.
Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English  Language. Access Feb. 26 

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