Teaching Vocab in a Way That Sticks
If students are going to be able to make sense of what they’re reading, express themselves, or interpret phrases used figuratively or symbolically, they need to know a wide range of words. But research shows that low-income students often come to school with a smaller vocabulary than their more affluent peers, which brings a greater urgency to the work of educators in schools serving these students.
New data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show some signs of recent progress in vocabulary proficiency for low-income students and students of color. For example, the gap separating Latino and white middle school students has narrowed by almost 20 percent in just four years. Performance for low-income elementary and middle school students has risen, too. But in elementary and high school, performance for students of color hasn’t changed since 2009. This has worrisome implications for these children’s long-term progress: without targeted interventions or supports, they’ll likely fall further behind.
Given this, how can schools help their students develop the knowledge they’ll need to support literacy development?
To start, they can take a look at some schools that are bucking the national trend for students of color. Take George Hall Elementary in Mobile, Ala., where teachers use field trips as one strategy for building vocabulary. Think going on a boat is just a fun ride? Wrong. It’s also a way to teach new words — from “starboard” and “skipper” to “anchor” and “adrift” — in a way that will stick in a kid’s memory. Or P.S./M.S. 124 Osmond A. Church, an elementary/middle school in Queens, N.Y., where teachers have used Core Knowledge, a sequenced curriculum, to systematically build vocabulary and background knowledge through deep dives into topics in a range of disciplines, from arts and literature to history and science. Or pop into Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary in New Orleans, La., and you’ll hear the kindergarten teacher leading her students in games designed to draw connections between words they already know and ones they haven’t yet encountered.
Each of these schools thinks differently about how to help their students develop a more robust vocabulary. But what each is clear about is the need for teachers to deliberately expose students to new words, topics, and experiences that will help them make sense of the world around them — and prepare them to grapple with and understand the more advanced content they’ll see in later grades. As educators across the nation consider how to accelerate their students’ vocabulary, these schools offer insights into how to take on that charge.