Helping teachers use keys to vocabulary building

Research shows that a large vocabulary is vital to reading comprehension and communication ability. It even affects how we perceive one another.

But Karen Bromley, a professor in the School of Education and Human Development, said elementary-grade teachers have largely ignored vocabulary building and their students are, literally, at a loss for words.

"We need to rethink the way we teach vocabulary," said Bromley, a former third-grade teacher and K-6 reading specialist, who conducts research on how children acquire and expand on language skills. Research dating from the 1940s through today indicates that vocabulary constitutes about 80 percent of language comprehension and 65 percent of fluency " the ability to read, speak and write confidently.

"Some surveys suggest that kids from impoverished homes learn, maybe, 3,500 words a year," Bromley said. "Kids from more privileged homes learn about 5,000 words a year. And even if kids move out of the poverty level, their word-learning rate doesn't increase. It's always lower."

Schools can help bridge that gap. However, the textbooks and basal readers Bromley has examined mainly teach vocabulary through word lists, which teachers cover through study and drills. Her research indicates that successful vocabulary building requires teachers to help students actively use their current knowledge to learn unfamiliar words.

"If you just give kids the pronunciation and the meaning, they haven't learned the word," she said, adding that vocabulary words are best learned by being spoken, written and used to create sentences and stories.

"When teachers teach a word, they define it, and maybe use it in a sentence," she said. "But if I were going to teach you the word 'intercollegiate,' I would think aloud for you, by telling you how I figure out and remember what it means."

When teachers lead students to consider what they may already know, " that interstate refers to a highway, w

Contact: Susan E. Barker, Director of Research Advancement
Binghamton University

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