California English Journal
During the early years of space exploration, NASA scientist Werner von Braun gave many speeches on the wonders and promises of rocketry and space flight. After one of his luncheon talks, von Braun found himself clinking cocktail glasses with an adoring woman from the audience.
Now there was someone who needed to gain greater control over her vocabulary. But, realizing the power that word confers on our lives, don't we all wish that we could build a better vocabulary?
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once declared that "language is the skin of living thought." Holmes recognized that just as our skin bounds and encloses our body, so does our vocabulary bound and enclose our mental life.
Suppose, for example, you wish to describe something of great size. You can haul out those two old stand-bys big and large. But, if you possess an extensive vocabulary, you can press into service an army of more powerful and muscular adjectives: tremendous, immense, enormous, huge, vast, or gigantic.
If, in addition to size, you wish to convey the suggestion of solidity and immovability, you can use words such as massive, bulky, unwieldy, jumbo, elephantine, and mountainous. If you want to create an image of clumsiness, you can call into service the likes of lumbering and ponderous. Hulking, looming, and monstrous add a sense of threat to the impression of size, while mighty, towering, and colossal indicate that the size inspires awe.
It's a matter of simple mathematics: The more words you know, the more choices you can make; the more choices you can make, the more accurate, vivid, and varied your speaking and writing will be.
Here are five methods you can use to enrich your vocabulary and, as a result, your ability to communicate:
1. Read! Read! Read! When you were a child learning to speak, you seized each word as if it were a shiny toy. This is how you learned your language, and this is how you can expand your word stock.
The best way to learn new words is through reading. Read for pleasure. Read for information. Read everything you can find on nay subject that interests you. Read short stories. Read novels. Read non-fiction. Read newspapers. Read magazines. Soak up words like a sponge. The more words you read, the more words you will know. The more words you know, the better you will be able to communicate - and think.
2. Infer meaning from context. There is another reason why reading is an effective way to grow vocabulary. A word that stands by itself offers fewer clues to its meaning than does a word that is related by sense to other words to other words in a sentence or paragraph. These surrounding words make up the context (from Latin contextere, "to weave together") in which the unknown word is used.
Detectives use clues to help them make deductions and solve cases. You can become a word detective and deduce the meaning of an unknown word by taking into account the words that surround it and the situation being talked or written about.
Here are four ways that you can discover the meaning of a new word from its setting.
3. Dig down to the roots. Words and people have a lot in common. Like people, words are born, grow up, get married, have children, and even die. And, like people, words come in families -- big and beautiful families. A word family is a cluster of words that are related because they contain the same root; a root is a basic building block of language from which a variety of related words are formed. You can expand your vocabulary by digging down to the roots of an unfamiliar word and identifying the meanings of those roots.
For example, knowing that the roots scribe and script mean "write" will help you to deduce the meanings of a prolific clan of words, including ascribe, conscript, describe, inscribe, manuscript, nondescript, postscript, prescribe, proscribe, scribble, scripture, and transcribe. For another example, once you know that dic and dict are roots that mean "speak or say," you possess a key that unlocks the meanings of dozens of related words, including abdicate, benediction, contradict, dedicate, dictator, Dictaphone, dictionary, dictum, edict, indicate, indict, interdict, malediction, predict, syndicate, valedictory, verdict, vindicate, and vindictive.
Suppose that you encounter the word antipathy in speech or writing. From words like antiwar and antifreeze you can infer that the root anti- means "against," and from words like sympathy and apathy that path is a root that means "feeling." From such insights it is but a short leap to deduce that antipathy means "feeling against something." This process of rooting out illustrates the old saying "It's hard by the yard but a cinch by the inch."
You can expand your verbal powers by learning to look an unfamiliar word squarely in the eye and asking, "What are the roots in the word, and what do they mean?" Here are fifty word parts descended from either Latin or Greek, each followed by three words containing each root. From the meanings of the clue words, deduce the meaning of each root, as in PHON - microphone, phonics, telephone = sound. Good luck. I'm rooting for you!:
4. Get the dictionary
habit. The great storyteller Mark Twain once wrote, "A
dictionary is the most awe-inspiring of all books; it knows so
much . . . . It has gone around the sun, and spied out everything
and lit it up." The practice of using the dictionary is essential
in acquiring a mighty and versatile vocabulary. Keep an up-to-date
dictionary by your side when you read. Whenever you run across
a word that you are not sure of, look it up, a process that will
probably take you no more than thirty seconds. Then record the
word and its meaning on your private word list.
Remind yourself not to procrastinate about acquiring and using new words. Make vocabulary growth a lifelong adventure. In the process, you will expand your thoughts and your feelings, your speaking, your reading, and your writing - everything that makes up you.
Rationale Directly Addressing Vocabulary Development
teaching of vocabulary might be one of the most underused activities
in K-12 education. The lack of vocabulary instruction might be a
result of misconceptions about what it means to teach vocabulary
and its potential effect on student learning. Perhaps the biggest
misconception is that teaching vocabulary means teaching formal dictionary
definitions.” (Italics added)
The common shortcoming in all of these less effective approaches is the lack of active student involvement in connecting the new concept/meaning to their existing knowledge base. Vocabulary learning, like most other learning, must be based on the learner’s active engagement in constructing understanding, not simply passively re-presenting information from a text or lecture. This requires that teachers use language, images, examples, and other representational forms that are familiar to their students – not simply focus on the definition provided in the glossary or dictionary.
example, if the new word was skeptical an appropriate explanation
The following section will explore some practical strategies secondary teachers can employ to increase the integration/connection, repetition, and meaningful use of new vocabulary words in their instructional programs.
Increase the amount of independent reading
The largest influence on student’s vocabulary is the sheer volume of reading they do, especially wide reading that includes a rich variety of texts. This presents a particularly difficult challenge for underprepared high school students who lack the reading habit. Strategies that can help to motivate reluctant readers include:
Appropriate Dictionary Selection for Heterogeneous Classrooms
Secondary students certainly need to know how and when to use a dictionary to look up the meanings of unfamiliar words. Surprisingly, many adolescents lack even the most rudimentary dictionary skills and benefit from some explicit instruction. Without training and guidance, less proficient readers and English language learners are apt to encounter numerous difficulties as they struggle to first locate and then effectively navigate a lengthy dictionary entry.
Many students do not own a dictionary, and if they do, it is often not a very powerful or appropriate resource for clarifying word meanings. While English learners may carry a bilingual dictionary, this resource is generally inadequate for several reasons. First, long-term bilinguals or more recent immigrants with disrupted educational histories may have limited academic vocabulary in the home language. When looking up the meaning of a term such as categorize or stereotype, a bilingual youth may very well encounter an unfamiliar word in the native language. Simply copying a translation does little to promote reading comprehension. Further, the small bilingual dictionaries carried by secondary students carry limited and often inaccurate definitions. An electronic dictionary may be equally unproductive for a bilingual or less proficient reader tackling grade-level curricula, as they tend to offer scant definitions and no contextualized example sentences. An electronic dictionary is useful for a quick fix, but it is not the most considerate resource for a student operating from a weak academic vocabulary base while completing grade-level assignments. Another common language arts resource, which is likely to utterly demoralize an under-prepared reader, is an adult thesaurus. In order to benefit from an array of synonyms, a reader must operate from a solid academic vocabulary base. Less proficient English users will generally have no gauge of contextual appropriateness and end up infusing their written work with glaringly inappropriate word choices.
traditional collegiate dictionary is probably the less effective
Many publishers, including Longman and Heinle and Heinle, have developed a line of manageable “learner’s dictionaries” for secondary students who need a more user-friendly dictionary to assist them in content area coursework. A learner’s dictionary characteristically includes fewer yet more high-frequency definitions, written in accessible language and complemented by an age-appropriate sample sentence. English language learners and less proficient readers benefit from the clear, simple definitions and common synonyms as much as the natural examples illustrating words and phrases in typical contexts. These dictionaries are also easier for students to utilize than collegiate dictionaries because the entries are written in a larger font size and include useful and obvious signposts to guide them in identifying the proper entry. A final advantage is that many learner’s dictionaries may be purchased in book form, along with a CD-ROM providing pictures, audio, and pronunciation of headwords.
Developmentally appropriate lexical resources are fundamental to providing all students, regardless of their level of English proficiency or literacy, with greater access to grade-level competencies and curricula. A democratic language arts classroom, marked by cultural and linguistic diversity, must include considerate and manageable dictionaries for less proficient readers, to enable them to develop more learner autonomy and to assist them in completing independent writing and reading tasks.
Select the most important words to teach
Students with weak lexical skills are likely to view all new words as equally challenging and important, so it is imperative for the teacher to point out those words that are truly vital to a secondary student’s academic vocabulary base. Unfortunately, teachers who gravitated toward English instruction, in great part out of a passion for language and literature, may find all words of equal merit and devote too much instructional time to interesting and unusual yet low-frequency words, which a less prepared reader is unlikely to ever again encounter. This lexical accessorizing is overwhelming to a reader who may be striving to simply get the gist of a novel, and proves to be even more daunting as the student attempts to study a litany of unfamiliar terms.
Graves & Graves (1994) make a helpful distinction between teaching vocabulary and teaching concepts. Teaching vocabulary is teaching new labels/finer distinctions for familiar concepts. In contrast teaching concepts involves introducing students to new ideas/notions/theories/etc. that will require significantly more instruction to build real understanding. Teachers can get more out of direct vocabulary work by selecting words carefully; saving more time consuming and complex strategies for conceptually challenging words, using relatively expedient strategies to assist students in learning new labels or drawing finer grained distinctions around known concepts. Making wise choices about which words to directly teach, how much time to take, and when enough is enough are essential to vocabulary building.
Brief Strategies for Vocabulary (Stahl, 1999)
Words that are new to students but represent familiar concepts can be addressed using a number of relatively quick instructional tactics. Many of these (e.g. synonyms, antonyms, examples) are optimal for prereading and oral reading when more expedient approaches are appropriate. In every case the brief strategy features a focus on explaining what the word means using language the students can relate to, understand, and attach personal meaning.
The “language gap” is a critical challenge to teachers and educators at every grade level. There is no simple solution or quick fix, an impoverished vocabulary can not be habilitated in a few weeks! However, there educators can have an enormously positive impact on building their students lexical skills IF we insure that; 1) all students are being taught to read well, 2) all students are encouraged/motivated to read widely, 3) teachers employ effective strategies to directly and explicitly teach the most important vocabulary words in a given selection or chapter of text (especially pre-teaching), 4) teachers structure opportunities for all students to explore and apply new words in their reading and writing.
In sum, it is essential to keep in mind that promoting extensive reading, carefully selecting which words to teach quickly or extensively, and choosing strategies that help students make cognitive connections between the new and the known are at the heart of effective vocabulary building. Lastly, the more intangible notion of taking delight in the world of words, modeling one’s own love of language, pushing the “lexical envelope” is less subject to research study, but certainly worthy of consideration none-the-less.
S.K., Simmons, D.C., & Kame’enui, E.J. (1998). Vocabulary
I.L., McKeown, M.G. & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life:
R.J., Pickering, D.J. & Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction
(1988). Teaching vocabulary to improve reading comprehension.
S.A. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA.:
I have been noticing a widespread misuse of prepositions in my students' writing lately. Sometimes the wrong preposition is used, sometimes a preposition is omitted, or sometimes a preposition is added where one does not belong. Given all the other things I might find troubling about my students' writing, their misuse of prepositions may seem trivial, but perhaps there is some virtue in looking more carefully at the phenomenon.
David Crystal's excellent Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language provides a clear explanation of prepositions. There we learn that prepositions express a relationship of meaning between two parts of a sentence, often between two noun phrases, usually a relation of space or time. The common prepositions consist of just one word such as about, down, for, from, in, of, on, through, to, under, and with. Some multi-word prepositions include: ahead of, instead of, as far as, by means of, and on behalf of. Prepositions combine with noun phrases to form prepositional phrases which modify nouns or verbs:
The preposition problem is not new. In a classic study of the frequency of errors and teacher marking of errors in student writing, Lunsford and Connors (1988) ranked wrong or missing prepositions seventh on their list, comprising 5.5% of the total errors they counted. It is not hard to understand how student writers come to make most of the errors on this list, especially when one notes that four of the eight most common errors involved commas. It is not surprising, for example, that students write sentence fragments, are vague or imprecise in their use of pronouns or sometimes use the wrong word (affect/effect conscious/conscience). Even professional writers make errors such as these, as Gary Sloan (1990) showed when he compared the errors made by professional writers with those made by his college freshmen writers. However, Sloan mentioned student's "unidiomatic use of prepositions" only tangentially, and though he found that the professionals made many of the same errors students made, they did not misuse prepositions.
I do find it strange that my native speaker student writers should so misuse prepositions, because the rules governing their use are acquired unconsciously and not as a result of conscious learning as in the case of commas. In fact, the conventional use of prepositions develops naturally over time in native speakers. David Crystal quotes a study of an eighteen month old child who was found to use the prepositions in and on correctly only 10% of the time. By the time she was 2 years old, however, she was using them correctly 90% of the time. Needless to say, this progress was achieved without any formal instruction. But whereas native speakers might well misuse "affect" and "effect" because the difference is not always clear in ordinary speech, the same cannot be said for most of the preposition errors I have noted. Something else must account for them.
At first I was content to say that messy prepositions are simply a symptom of woolly thinking. If a writer is not sure what she thinks, or if it is not terribly important for her to express herself clearly, then a little preposition is not going to get the attention it might deserve. Preposition usage in English has a long history of change anyway, so perhaps my students are merely harbingers of that change, and I am just resisting it. But whereas I have resolved to never flinch at a split infinitive, the misuse of prepositions strikes me as a more serious problem.
In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell ridiculed the use of clichés and "prefabricated phrases" and connected their use to sloppy thinking and the desire to obfuscate and manipulate others. Misused prepositions certainly do not threaten democracy in the same way that political doublespeak does, but perhaps they should be taken seriously nevertheless. That is, if writers do not take care to show the exact relationship between parts of a sentence when they write, it suggests that they do not understand that relationship clearly. Correcting the preposition thus becomes an occasion for clarifying the writer's thinking.
When I ask my students (future high school English teachers) to identify and fix the preposition errors in the sentences I show them, they are not always very successful. Often, they do not recognize examples of misuse, though when the misuse is pointed out they can usually supply what I think is the correct form. The explanation they offer for their own errors and for not immediately detecting the errors I show them is that the forms sound fine to them. They argue that they and the students they will teach inhabit a primarily oral culture, and that they are not used to paying such careful attention to the minutiae of language.
Here is a sample list of sentences containing proposition errors. These examples are taken from papers written by native speakers, all juniors or seniors, majoring in English or Liberal Studies at CSU Sacramento where I teach.
In an attempt to understand the nature of these particular errors, I have found that I can assign them to one of three categories:
Straining for formality
Conflating two different phrases
Lack of familiarity
I invite you to try to assign the remaining errors in the list to my categories. I have listed my own "answers" at the end of this essay*.
In discussing these errors with colleagues, I find that we do not always agree. Some do not always see a problem where I see one; others agree that a particular usage might sound awkward, but feel that it is not worth pointing out. My friend Don suggested that all these examples should go under category A, that they are all the result of writers trying too hard to write formal or academic English for their English professor. His argument is that no student would ever misuse prepositions in this way in ordinary speech. There may be some truth to this suggestion, though I immediately thought of an example from my older son, who used to say "on accident" instead of "by accident" until I made him hyper-conscious. It would be interesting to do a study of oral language to find out if preposition misuse is as common there as I find it in my students' writing.
I do not have any simple answer to the problem of prepositional misuse. Using prepositions correctly seems to me to be a function of a general concern with linguistic accuracy and detail that can only really be fostered by those of us who read and respond to our students' writing. This means - no surprise here - that students have to write more often and that we have to read their writing more carefully.
assessment of the errors is as follows:
First, there's the word. That's what the writers told us when we interviewed a score or more several years ago at the Southern California Writers' Conference. We sat with writer after writer, relative novices, experienced, avocational, and very well-paid writers. Among the interviews were two agents and one editor. We asked, What makes you write, What turns your writer's head, What do you think teachers should teach when they teach writing? We expected the writers might talk about the muse or felt need or creative spirit. They did, but they talked about something else more. Virtually to a person they talked about words.
The writers didn't talk about words as adjectives or verbs. A fair number may not have been able to find adjectives and verbs on a third grade worksheet. They didn't talk about particular words, although the Writers' Haven listserv carries regular threads about how best to use this or that word. The writers at the writers' conference talked about their appreciation of words. One put it directly. He said what drew him to writing, and what keeps him writing, is "falling in love with the word."
Like everyone else who reads from and writes for this journal, we teach writing. And just like everyone else who teaches writing, we grapple with our students' grappling over words. As writing teachers, our grappling is with two aspects of the word. First, but only because something has to be first, is word selection, variety, appropriate and interesting use. The second, though not less important, is spelling the word. Good writers have words to use, and they spell them correctly. This article is about words for writers to use. It's about vocabulary.
We're very good at teaching vocabulary in this profession. We know which words to teach, and we know how to teach them so when our students read a new passage, they don't get stuck on words they haven't seen before. We know the shortcomings of list-giving for dictionary homework, and we've adopted a variety of interesting instructional tools and procedural knowledge that not only help readers as they face new material, but also make them veritable trained killers on the SAT. We can flat-out teach vocabulary.
But we're brought up short later in the day when we collect what our students write. The writing is good or bad, facile or primitive, scintillating or flat, but just about all of it shares one striking characteristic. The student-writers who knew the vocabulary words well enough to read the passage we assigned didn't choose to use them when they wrote. It's an interesting realization for teachers. It seems that it almost doesn't matter how we teach vocabulary; students can get every one of our test questions right and still not use the words in writing.
It isn't that it doesn't matter at all how we teach vocabulary. In fact, we increase the appearance of vocabulary words in their writing as we commit more time to teaching vocabulary, implement a Word Wall, and use it every day. If we do interesting activities with the words, they're more likely to appear in students' writing; and if we demand their appearance, they're more likely to appear, though often in ways that tell us the writing would be better if they didn't try to write "verity" into a sentence about surfing.
It's an interesting puzzle that we've been pursuing for several of years (Fearn, L., Farnan, N., and Rodenberg, J.K., 2001; Fearn, L., Farnan, N., 2003). There are two reasons why the words we teach for reading don't appear when they write. The first reason rests in our own experience as readers and writers. Think a moment -- when you read down a line of text and run into a word you've not seen before, what do you need? No, context is a skill. The question is, what's missing, what does the reader need when confronted with a new word? Yes, meaning. We need to know what the new word means. We may search for the meaning, ask a neighbor, figure it from context, but we're looking for the meaning.
Now, change language performance. You're laying down a line of text. You come to midsentence in midparagraph, and stop, dead. You stammer aloud, snap your fingers, tap the border of the keyboard just below the space bar. You look around; you beat your right index finger in the air in a sort of rhythm. You're looking for something -- a word. It escapes you. It's the right word, and it's just a tad beyond reach. What's missing? What are you looking for? Yes, you're looking for the word. We may search the thesaurus, ask a friend, or consider revising the sentence so we don't need that word, but the focus is the word.
When we read, then, and face a new word, we need meaning. When we write, though, and we're searching about, we already know the meaning; now we need the word. Vocabulary is different for reading and writing. In reading, we have words and need meanings; in writing, we have meanings and need words. Mastery of meanings for words doesn't necessarily generalize to using words when we already have meanings (Kame'enui, E.F., Dixon, D.W., and Carnine, R.C., 1987). The distinction between needing words or needing meanings is one reason.
Here's the other reason. When we read, we have to recognize words and their connections to meanings. "Recognize" in that sentence not only serves as a verb; it is also a specialized term in the psychology of learning, specifically, memory. Recognition is a specific kind of memory. It's the kind of memory people use when they make connections. It's the kind of memory our students use when they associate what they've learned about word meanings to a passage that contains new words.
When they write, however, the memory demand is different. In writing, they have to recall words. "Recall" in that sentence also serves as a verb and is the term for a specialized kind of memory. Writing requires that students, and the rest of us, not merely make a connection; writing requires that we reproduce words that fit a meaning. Of the two kinds of memory, recognition and recall, the latter is far more demanding, and if words aren't learned with the thoroughness demanded of recall, they're like not to appear when students write (Baumann, J.F., Kame'enui, E.J., and Ash, G.E., 2003).
We're teaching recognition memory for reading, and it focuses on meaning. In writing, we have to teach recall memory that focuses on words. Our students aren't using the words we teach for reading, when they write, because the situation in which and for which we teach vocabulary, for reading, doesn't generalize to writing. That's the other learning psychology term in all this. The third sentence in this paragraph contains the word "situation." We know that the situation in which something is taught is fundamental to what is learned, and we call that "situated cognition" (Putnam and Borko, 2000).
So, we have a problem
as writing teachers. It doesn't consume us as sentences, paragraphs,
and apostrophes do, but it's something with which we struggle some.
Our students don't become better writers because they use a lot of
heavy-duty words. They'll become better writers because they use
several kinds of sentences properly and on purpose and they organize
them in a discernable order. But that question about vocabulary still
There are theories
that explain what we're up against. There's the distinction between
receptive and productive language, reading and writing. There's the
distinction between recognition and recall memory, and those are
connected to receptive and productive language. And there is that
business of situated cognition.
With whom did
* * *
(These four examples of the alternative instruction should appear just about here)
* * *
School 2. It was important that we identify other teachers, who did not use alternative instruction and who would participate in the study. A history teacher and algebra teacher at another urban middle school readily agreed to participate. This school is similar to School 1, with 1400 students, 67% of whom receive free or reduce-priced meals and 53% of whom are English language learners. We asked these teachers to teach vocabulary as they normally would. When we asked them to describe their vocabulary instruction, we found that they worked differently from each other, but neither one used the strategies adopted in School 1. The algebra teacher used what we called traditional vocabulary instruction. We used this terminology because the instruction, which was embedded in daily mathematics instruction on learning to solve polynomials, focused primarily on matching words with their definitions. The history teacher used what we called enhanced traditional instruction, best described as providing students with many "looks" at word. In other words, this teacher offered students numerous opportunities to use vocabulary words--through a cloze procedure where students completed prewritten sentences with appropriate vocabulary, vocabulary Jeopardy, and drawing images to express word meanings.
What did we
Student writings were then read "blind" by the three researchers. We read each student's paper independently and, with a highlighter, marked the content vocabulary they used in their writing. For example, when writing about medieval history, we highlighted words such as knight, feudalism, tithe. In mathematics, we highlighted words such as polynomial, dividend, divisor, remainder. Each teacher provided us with a list of words they thought could show up in students' writings, and we found many of those words, as well as others not on the teachers' lists.
What did we
What does this
herefore, it is reasonable to assume that the data in this study apply to reading as well as writing. In other words, when we teach words for recall in writing, it is reasonable to think that students will also recognize the words when reading. We would argue that the arrow goes one way but not the other. Students who learn words for recall can also recognize them when reading; however, students who learn words for recognition in reading will not necessarily be able to access recall them for writing.
Because this is basic research, our conclusions can only be tentative. Nevertheless, the research does suggest that the time has come to look closely at the existence of two vocabulary development systems and consider the effect of those systems on students' vocabulary development.
Alas, for many of our students the words present a problem. This issue of California English focuses on ways teachers can help students learn new words every day. Kevin Feldman, Kate Kinsella, Leif Fearn, and Nancy Farnan offer research into how students acquire new language and effective methods for learning to use newly acquired words. Alfee Enciso, Tom Carnicelli, and Davina Rubin suggest ways to embed word study into your classroom practice. Angus Dunstan provides insight into preposition errors and Richard Lederer advice on "digging down to the roots."
Sandra Stotsky, the author of Losing Our Language, contends that in response to demands for wider representation and easier-to-read texts in elementary school readers, publishers have eliminated much of the literature that once prepared students for the challenging academic and literary texts they face in high school and college. She sees vocabulary development as the key: "children's language development is the engine that drives intellectual growth, and the language of schooling is the engine that drives academic achievement. Thought and language interact at the level of the word."
Let's make sure
California students have the words they need.