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'Tell 'em what it means? Really!' Vocabulary - teaching meaningfully

Let's face it. Vocabulary cannot be taught in isolation. We can get caught up in teaching all the tough words we see in a text but how effective is this when it comes to reading comprehension? Of course, as teachers, we are all about enriching language and improving the way our children communicate but the persistent struggle is getting them to unpick meaning from words never encountered before and recognising shades of meaning when familiar words are used differently. We use words like 'strategy' then tell them 'read around the word' but how often do we actually show the children what this looks like?


Strategies are important tools for children especially when tackling rich texts. I cringe when I hear things like 'just tell them the meaning' because it robs children of the opportunity to engage their strategies that can become lifelong processes to deepen understanding. Of course some words demand your input - like 'discombobulation' particularly if there is no clue in the surrounding text. But let us be real here, will they have that knowledgeable other present each time they read? Of course not! So how are you helping children to spot patterns in words or even shades of meaning when you use this approach? Dictionaries are useful tools - but only as a self help method and certainly great for checking skimming and scanning. However dictionaries are often not in child talk and definitions can be just as confusing. Children don't always have access to this tool and certainly in a comprehension test, dictionaries are of no use. Children deserve all the tools that work.


So, how can vocabulary be taught meaningfully in the group reading model? Over years of delivering these sessions, I teach my students three key strategies that work. I call them the 3 Rs (Read around the word, Root word and Replace the word). Essentially I not only teach them the ways but show them the how. It is significant to the reading process that opportunities are always given to discuss how to decipher vocabulary in group reading.


Often, it is said that when a child comes across a word they have never seen before they need to read around it - meaning read the rest of the sentence and place the word in context. But does this work when you come across a phrase like 'cheesy joke' as opposed to a 'cheesy pie'? A simple word that is familiar can be used differently and therefore reading around does not always apply to higher tiered vocabulary but also to words with subtle or blatant shifts in meaning according to the author's use.


The root word strategy is significant as it heightens grammatical connections. Morphology is essential to empower children to spot word patterns and how they affect meaning. Children need to learn the meanings of prefixes and how they manipulate a root word into what the author intends as well as suffixes which affect word class, tense and plurality. For example 'misinformation' where the root word is 'inform' is made an antonym by the prefix 'mis' and a noun by the suffix 'ation'. Knowledge like this greatly impacts on how a word is understood.


Replace is the ultimate strategy that is always used. How many times have we heard children explain by repeating the word in their explanation? By embedding synonyms around words they are armed with the 'how' to explain. In other words, no matter if they use the root word or read around strategies or both in whichever order, they must end with the replace strategy. Teaching them useful synonyms can come in either a word or a phrase form. For example they should be able to explain a phrase with a phrase if that is what the text lends itself to. Teach synonym phrases as well as words as it will enable children with limited word knowledge who still have an understanding. Refine this if you can through your book talk with words of equal shade to the vocabulary given in text. The last thing we want is a child replacing 'dreadful' with 'bad'. I often plot words according to the shades of meaning and train the children to recognise the degree of impact intended by the author so that they can replace effectively.


Of course there is a lot more to it - like bringing in writer's language techniques for effect- but that is for another blog!


Happy comprehension teaching.


Reading Rogue


Kala Williams is a Primary based Education Consultant specialising in the teaching of reading for able children who works across schools in Coventry, UK developing a rigorous approach for the teaching of group reading developed uniquely from years of successful practice while training professionals to deliver group reading using enriched teaching practices geared to move children to achieve Greater Depth in comprehension. Her company Bright I's is a fast growing consultancy born out of passion, research based approach and what actually works! Follow her on twitter @rogue_reading or reach out via email brightideased@zoho.com