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Expanding Vocabulary

Updated on March 15, 2014

There's a Hole in the Bucket

I fear for children who have very limited vocabularies. Several years ago I was subbing in a rural school district . A fourth grader, who was readingThe Secret Garden, came running to tell me that the book had a swear in it. "Are you sure?" I asked her. "Yes," she replied, visibly upset, "It says the word g-a-y!!"

What a perfect, teachable moment to explain that the word gay in this book meant happy, and joyful. I started to wonder just how few words students really know. It also made me think about word knowledge overall. Are kids so unfamiliar with their own language that they would not be able to use context clues to determine the meaning of a word such as gay?

Fast forward to my current position as a Reading Specialist in a high school. I have learned that most adolescents, when they come across a word they don't know, just skip it. It is rather like trying to carry a bucket of water with holes in the bottom. By the time they carry the bucket to the destination, the water is lost, just as the meaning is lost when one reads, but skips all the unfamiliar words. As students increase the size of their vocabularies, the holes in the bucket begin to be patched, and reading begins to make more sense.

Owning the Words


There are many reasons to be concerned about expanding vocabulary for high school students with reading difficulties. Research suggests that by the time struggling readers have reached High School, they know about 14,000 fewer words than their more proficiently reading peers (Beck, 2002). Not only do they lack the quantity of vocabulary, but also they also lack the background knowledge that is acquired as one reads. Across the content areas, vocabulary is the one area that can not be overlooked if we are going to help students succeed as readers.

It is not enough for students to know a dictionary definition to be able to pass a quiz, and then have the words lost because they are never used again. Students must have "ownership" of the words in their vocabulary. This means that they have a substantial bank of words that they know in print, in speech, and will use themselves when they write and speak. Ownership of words also means that students are aware of and familiar with multiple meanings, denotations and connotations of words. This multi-dimensional word knowledge improves comprehension of text, because students can read words in context and recognize how they are used and their intended meaning. Expressions such as "give me a hand" require one to recognize that a hand in this case does not mean the appendage at the end of an arm; it means to give assistance.

Helping students to expand their vocabulary is something that can be integrated across the content areas and is a terrific way to improve literacy. It can also be a fun way to help students build knowledge and gain confidence in their ability to choose words and use them to convey exactly what they mean to say. Games are easily Incorporated into vocabulary development. The more exposures to words students have, the greater the opportunity they have to become owners of new words.

Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

There are some things we can do to help our students acquire new words and truly own them.

  • Choosing words to teach that have high utility; words that will be encountered in text, on the radio, in movies and in conversations.
  • Modeling how to use vocabulary we want our students to know in conversation, and encouraging students to use the words, find the words in text, and report when they hear others using the words.
  • Creating a vocabulary rich environment with word walls and visual representations for the vocabulary we want to teach.
  • Teach multiple meanings for words and the context in which the various meanings are used.
  • Games such as pictionary, laser tag, charades, and card games are great ways to expose students to new words and provide multiple exposures to the words.

Beck, I. M. (2002). Bringing words to life.New York: Guilford Press.

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