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Vocabulary Learning Strategies: Increase independent word learning in school-age children

Updated: Dec 14, 2020


๐•๐จ๐œ๐š๐›๐ฎ๐ฅ๐š๐ซ๐ฒ ๐ข๐ฌ ๐ž๐ฌ๐ฌ๐ž๐ง๐ญ๐ข๐š๐ฅ ๐Ÿ๐จ๐ซ ๐ฅ๐ข๐ญ๐ž๐ซ๐š๐œ๐ฒ ๐š๐ง๐ ๐ข๐ฌ ๐ญ๐ก๐ž #๐Ÿ ๐ฉ๐ซ๐ž๐๐ข๐œ๐ญ๐จ๐ซ ๐จ๐Ÿ ๐š๐œ๐š๐๐ž๐ฆ๐ข๐œ ๐ฌ๐ฎ๐œ๐œ๐ž๐ฌ๐ฌ (๐๐š๐ค๐ž๐ซ, ๐’๐ข๐ฆ๐ฆ๐จ๐ง๐ฌ, & ๐Š๐š๐ฆ๐ž'๐ž๐ง๐ฎ๐ข, ๐Ÿ๐Ÿ—๐Ÿ—๐Ÿ•).


It is obvious that vocabulary is important, but sometimes there is a disconnect when it comes to how to effectively target vocabulary, especially in the school-age population.


We know it would be highly inefficient and even IMPOSSIBLE to try to teach every word a child will ever need to know.


So, how can you get the most bang for your buck & increase independent word learning in your school-age students?


First, let's look at 2 main ways children learn vocabulary:


๐ˆ๐ง๐œ๐ข๐๐ž๐ง๐ญ๐š๐ฅ ๐–๐จ๐ซ๐ ๐‹๐ž๐š๐ซ๐ง๐ข๐ง๐  occurs, as the name denotes, "incidentally." Kids naturally pick up new vocabulary from multiple exposures in conversation, listening to books, watching TV, during play, etc. They learn based on multiple exposures in context, without explicit instruction.


Children with language disorders learn vocabulary this way too. However, they tend to learn at a slower rate & require more exposures across more contexts to acquire the same understanding as typically developing peers (Kan and Windsor, 2010).


๐ˆ๐ง๐ญ๐ž๐ง๐ญ๐ข๐จ๐ง๐š๐ฅ ๐–๐จ๐ซ๐ ๐‹๐ž๐š๐ซ๐ง๐ข๐ง๐  involves strategies, including metalinguistic strategies, that are often explicitly taught. Typically developing children often develop these strategies with little effort. Children with language disorders, however, generally do not develop these skills as readily and robustly as typically developing peers and often require explicit instruction to develop these skills (Mills & Steele, 2011).

Some of these strategies include:


โญ๏ธ Morphemic analysis

โญ๏ธ Contextual analysis

โญ๏ธ Cognate awareness (for ELLs)

โญ๏ธ Semantic mapping


Morphemic analysis is a skill that involves increasing morphological awareness, which is

an understanding of how words can be broken down into smaller units of meaning such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes (Binder & Tighe, 2015). I often teach this as math, but with words. We can add different word parts together to make a new word. Or we can take a word we don't know and simplify it into parts that we do know. I will often practice breaking down a word (by identifying the morphological parts) then practice reconstructing it.

For example, consider the word herbivore.


First, we deconstruct it.


herb = plant

-vore = eater ("one who eats")


Then we reconstruct it.


plant + eater = herbivore.


So, what is an herbivore? Something that eats plants.


Contextual Analysis involves increasing awareness of context clues, or how the existing information provided by a speaker or by a text can help identify the meaning of a word. In some cases, information provided by the text can help students infer the meaning of a word. In other cases, a text or speaker may provide an appositive, which is a brief definition or description immediately following the word.


Cognate Awareness is similar to morphological awareness and can be used specifically with English Language Learners (ELLs) to improve vocabulary learning in English. It involves identifying cognates, or words that sound similar and have the same meaning across languages. But, beware of false cognates (words that sounds the same in both languages, but do not mean the same thing).


Semantic Mapping is a strategy that is similar to the Semantic Feature Analysis (SFA) approach to treating aphasia. In the same way SFA helps to reconstruct semantic pathways in the brain for individuals with aphasia, this same process can help students establish semantic pathways to facilitate vocabulary learning in students. This may involve taking a vocabulary work and talking about its semantic features, such as a definition, a synonym, an antonym, function, description of what it looks like, etc.


These strategies are not the only strategies used for learning vocabulary, but they are some of the most common strategies with an evidence base.


Check out my next blog post to learn more about how I implement this approach with my students!

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