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Mistake #4: Teaching content-based vocabulary out of context

Research shows that comprehension increases best when students are directly taught word-learning strategies and then have extensive practice figuring out new words in context.

Word learning skills include teaching students about affixes (prefixes, roots, and suffixes), as well as how to figure out new word meanings in context, in a variety of ways.

Ninety percent of English words with more than one syllable are based on Latin roots.   The remaining 10% are mostly Greek. A single Latin root generates 5-20 English words.

When students use traditional methods of memorizing vocabulary they can only learn about 8-10 words a week and they will not remember them.  However, each time a student learns a new Latin root, she can gain 5-20 new words from it.   When students understand roots, they analyze meaning.  For example “terre” means land.  So try to figure out the meanings of the following words: terrain, terrace, terrarium, terrestrial, extraterrestrial, subterranean, Mediterranean, terracotta, and terra nova.



vocabulary gamesStudents need both direct instruction in word learning skills and many exposures to the same vocabulary words. Research shows that students need about 17 exposures in different contexts before they master new words and can use them correctly and easily.

How do you teach new vocabulary to students effectively and efficiently, and use this instruction to help them comprehend text?

The following are some simple word-learning strategies that promote reading comprehension.

Before Reading
  • Categorizing Vocabulary:  Write the new terms in the text on the board. Students can work in pairs or groups to figure out the meaning of these terms and categorize them. Previewing the vocabulary will help them determine what the text will be about. (They can check their work as they read the text.)
  • Word Splash: Choose some key words or concepts from the text and group these words in  boxes on the board.  Have students write a paragraph using the words and predict how the words and concepts work together. (After reading, discuss how their ideas changed and why.)
While Reading
  • Visualizing Vocabulary: Have students identify words they feel are important as they read. For each word, have students draw pictures and write why the pictures are good examples of the word.
  • Word Webbing helps students see patterns and understand the connections between different things.  Here is an example for the animal kingdom:

vocabulary webbing


  • Word Riddles: Students pick new words from the text and write word riddles with 3 or more clues- synonyms, number of syllables, root meaning, antonyms, etc.  They can try these riddles on each other.
  • Student Made Glossaries: Have students write a glossary of new terms and their meanings.
After Reading
  • Word Theater:  Write the new vocabulary words from the text on the board.  Call on students and give each one a “secret” word from the list.  Have them mime the word and see if their classmates can figure out what they mean.
  • 20 Questions:  Attach a list of words on a bag with the new vocabulary.  The person who’s “it” picks a word. Others guess what word is in 20 (or so) questions by asking yes/ no questions.  Person who figures word out is “it.”

Come back next week and learn some ways to avoid mistake #5: Ignoring student motivation

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