Karen Bromley's article, Nine things every teacher should know about words and vocabulary instruction, from the April 2007 edition of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, reiterates a common theme around vocabulary instruction. We know how to do it well, but we do not do what we know. Her three major reasons to teach vocabulary include the fact that 70-80% of comprehension is dependent upon vocabulary, fluent readers recognize and understand many words, read more quickly and easily than those with more limited vocabulary, and students with large vocabularies score higher on achievement tests than those with smaller vocabularies.
One repeatedly suggested tool to teach vocabulary is instruction is word parts. A great deal of research supports teaching roots. If we provide instruction in roots, students can infer meanings of words. While this is an incomplete manner for deeply learning vocabulary, it provides connections that assist with learning and remembering new vocabulary. An interesting strategy working with roots is a word tree. While the authors show a tree with each major branch representing a root with leaves labeled with words containing the root, I prefer the idea of a tree trunk being labeled with a root and the branches being labeled with words demonstrating the word as seen below. If you were in a full class, you could divide the class into groups and assign each a root. The groups would be responsible for identifying words that contain the root and giving both a definition and a description of how the word incorporates the root. This could all be written on leaves that would be added to the "tree" during a class presentation.
Another tool for expanding vocabulary is reading aloud to students. This provides exposure to words we might not use in our oral vocabularies, context in which to develop definitions and background knowledge to support comprehension. Furthermore, reading aloud enables students to hear well read material which reinforces and develops fluency skills as well.
A third recommendation that I especially appreciate is her idea that teachers should "display an attitude of excitement and interest in words and language" (p. 535). Far too many well educated people fail to use the vocabularies they have. Everything good or bad rarely phenomenal or horrendous, things fall rather than plummet or descend, people walk rather than strut, swagger or stagger. We need to read and highlight the wonderful words and phrases we encounter. In those few extra minutes we sometimes have in class we can ask students to talk about favorite words or to compose vivid descriptions of things. We can celebrate these in class with verbal recognition and in print on bulletin boards and in school newspapers. Taking time to use and reward vocabulary helps all students in the class.
Since vocabulary is one of the triad of supports of comprehension (fluency and alphabetics- phonics and phonemic awareness- are the others), we need to figure out how to do a better job teaching it. We know how to do it. We need to not suffer from the curriculum conundrum: we have so much to do; we focus on covering it rather than teaching it. Someday we will stop providing lists of SAT words and definitions and quizzing students on the twenty to thirty words of the week. We will rely on wide reading, teaching a few select words well rather than many poorly and word study to develop vocabulary in a meaningful manner. This will reinforce both comprehension and fluency which will help our students be more successful.