Learning vocabulary involves two concepts. The first is adding new words to one’s personal lexicon but the second is learning new meanings for the words with which one is already familiar. We must not only help students add new words to their vocabularies, but also help them expand their knowledge about word meanings. Words have connotative as well as denotative meanings so to really understand what we are reading, requires an extensive background knowledge about language and word meaning. For this reason, good vocabulary instruction includes not only exposure to totally new words but also instruction that deepens student’s understanding of the meaning of words they already know which may be used in many other conceptional ways.
We learn words most often during our every day life experiences. For example, a young child learns the word and the concept of “hot” by touching a hot surface and hearing his mother say, “No! Hot!.” After the tears subside, the child has a clear and memorable link to both the word as well as the concept of “hot.
People also learn words through movies, television, listening to conversations and by extensive reading. This is the reason that we need to have students read as much as possible. The more they read, the better they become at reading and the larger their vocabularies become. Snow, Burns and Griffin (1998) state that from elementary through high school, students learn approximately 7 words per day or somewhere around 2,700 to 3,000 per year. Reading aloud to students is also a good way to expand student vocabulary since students can listen to text several levels above what they might be able to read and comprehend on their own. Reading to our students in all content areas should be a daily experience. This will not only help our good students but is absolutely vital for our struggling readers or English-Language Learner students.
As adults, we often use our knowledge of word parts such as prefixes, suffixes and root words to analyze a new word that we encounter. For this reason, it is helpful for students to study and learn the meaning of affixes. Content area teachers should identify the important affixes that belong to their subject area and help students learn the various word parts so that they develop a greater understanding of how to analyze new words they encounter while reading. For example, knowing that “hydro” means water would help students unlock the meaning of many scientific words dealing with water that they might encounter.
Another good way to encourage vocabulary development is to pique student curiosity and interest in new words. Word walls in all grades and content areas can help call attention to special vocabulary that students need to be successful in the classroom. Gathering interesting words and playing with words can also be great ways to help students build a large storehouse of vocabulary. The more students can connect to, visualize and enjoy adding new words to their vocabularies, the stronger and more competent readers they will become.