Words, words, words: Do’s and Don’ts of Vocabulary Tutoring

Words, words, words. Language and reading run the gamut from sounds and symbols (letters, syllables) to larger units of meaning including sentences and paragraphs. Put enough of those together and you get an email, poem, novel or encyclopedia. But one of the most important–and also challenging–units is the word.

English has the largest vocabulary of any of the 2,700 languages spoken on Earth. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,000 or so words but over 600,000 words and word phrases. Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil in The Story of English (1992) compare that to German, a neighboring language linguistically, which has a vocabulary of about 185,000 words and French with just over 100,000 words. If you lump in specialized scientific terminology, some estimates place the English vocabulary at over 1,000,000 words.

Not only is English rich in vocabulary but thanks to history and language development it also has one of the more complex vocabularies and irregular spelling systems. English emerged as a Germanic language in the 5th Century CE and has undergone a great deal of change from Old English to Middle English (roughly 1150 to 1500 CE) and from there to Modern English. To put things in perspective, Old English has about 50,000 words. So, where did all the extra words come from? They were borrowed from other languages like French, Greek, and Latin.

Not all that change happened in an orderly fashion as we see in English spelling. We have patterns like adding “ed” to make word past tense as in work and worked but we also haveeat and ate or go and went. We make most words plural by adding “s” or “es” at the end of the word. For example, bus becomes buses and dog becomes dogs but what about child andchildren? To add to the confusion we teach many patterns to young readers like “e at the end of word makes the vowel say its name” as in make, home, and vote but the pattern doesn’t hold up with words like find or we might say that when two vowels come together in the middle of a word the second vowel makes the first say its name as in lead or tree but what about head? And there are words that just don’t follow any rules or patterns. How do you decode a word like eight?

To cut down on some of the confusion here are a few “do’s and don’ts” for teaching vocabulary:

  • Do teach words that matter. Don’t teach words because they appear on a list or every word a child does not know. Pick your battles and teach words that are age appropriate and that a reader is likely to see again.
  • Don’t teach too many words at a time. Just because your fourth grade teacher gave you a weekly list of 20, 30 or 40 words does not mean you should do that with the learner you tutor. Less is more in learning vocabulary. Focus on teaching fewer words that matter. Teach five or six words and review them.
  • Do teach some of the most common spelling patterns like the two mentioned above but also show students that there are exceptions they’ll have to learn over time.
  • Don’t teach vocabulary using only definitions. Definitions are important but add pictures (images), synonyms and antonyms (words that are similar or opposite), and things the word reminds them of. Researchers like Lee Mountain and William Nagy have shown that definition-only approaches (i.e., “define these words and use them in a sentence”) are the least effective in teaching students new vocabulary so help students make other connections to words.
  • Do give students time and many opportunities to learn new words. Think of it as the “multiple hits” theory of learning vocabulary. It takes many exposures or “hits” on a word to really learn it, so if you are tutoring review new words each time you work with a student.

By the age of five or six most readers know the alphabet. Early on in learning to read most children know the sounds the letters and letter combinations make, but learning new words (vocabulary) goes on throughout our lives so having good strategies is important. As students get older teach them to proofread their writing to find and correct spelling mistakes and other errors.

Want to know more? The Center on Teaching & Learning at the University of Oregon has a website with additional information on learning vocabulary. For strategies to use in tutoring check out the UNC Charlotte Literacy wiki section on vocabulary.


About bluegrassjb

I am an academic with a love for language, literacy and learning. The focus of my work is on student success at the K-12 and college levels. Outside of my professional interests I enjoy travel, photography and antiquing with my partner and wife. We like to hit the road in our travel trailer with the dogs and when at home party with the cats.
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