What Works in Primary Vocabulary Instruction?

Helping Students Build Vocabulary Knowledge

If you teach the primary grades, it is important to understand the research behind effective primary vocabulary instruction.

Research says that the vocabulary of beginning first grade students predicts not only their word reading ability by the end of their first grade school year (Senechal & Cornell, 1993). This measure also predicts their reading comprehension by the end of their junior year in high school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997).

Louisa Cook Moats (2001) labeled confusion over word meanings and general gaps in vocabulary knowledge as a state of “word poverty.” She states that word poverty appears most often in populations largely made up of students from minority populations. It also includes English language learners, and students from low socioeconomic families.

Teaching Semantics During Primary Vocabulary Instruction

Semantics is the study of different meanings for words. The four types of word meanings are: denotative meanings, figurative meanings, metaphorical meanings and connotative meanings.

Biemiller (2001) tells us that developing a comprehensive understanding of a word comes through repeated exposure to the word in a variety of rich contexts.

Researchers (Nagy & Scott, 2000; Nation, 1990) report that word knowledge includes how it sounds, how it is written, and how it is used in speech. Students should also know the word’s polysemous (multiple meanings) and its morphology (how it was derived).

Understanding Word Differences

Ehri (2000) says that understanding that words are spelled differently and may have different meanings even when spelled the same helps students attend to and pronounce the different letter-sounds.

According to Juel and Deffes (2004), one of the best ways to make vocabulary meaningful and memorable for young students by anchoring new words in these multiple contexts.

Child holding a sign saying learning ABC is fun.

Researchers Learn about Primary Vocabulary Instruction

Comparing and contrasting words on the basis of various features like their spellings, their pronunciations and their meanings helps students organize and categorize words.

These characteristics give students “hooks” that they can use to access the word in the future. This results in more efficient memory storage and retrieval of newly learned vocabulary.

Juel and Deffes tested 3 different vocabulary instructional strategies to see which strategy worked most effectively with primary students.

In what they referred to as a “contextual condition,” teachers related word meanings to students’ background knowledge.

In the “analytic condition,” teachers related words to student’s background knowledge and engaged students in analyzing word meanings.

The third instructional method is “anchored condition.” In this method, teachers related words to students’ background knowledge. They then engaged students in active analysis of words. Finally, they called student’s attention to the words’ component letters and sounds.

The researchers concluded that the analytic and anchored instructional approaches helped students learn the words more effectively than did the contextual instructional approach.

The final recommendation of researchers was that teachers “should take every opportunity to connect vocabulary words to texts, to other words, and to some concrete orthographic features within the word.”

Read the full article Making Words Stick to learn more about effective strategies for primary vocabulary instruction.

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