Part 4: Teaching With Poverty: Teaching Vocabulary

According to research, by the time MOST children start school, they will have been exposed to "5 million words and should know about 13,000 of them." What does this mean to educators? We may have to help our students in poverty "catch up." 

Here are some tips:

Tip # 1 - Strategically Teach Vocabulary 

Why do many of our students refuse to read? For many students, its because they don't comprehend the vocabulary within the text. Students typically need to know 90 -  95% of the words in a text to be able to understand it. 

Beck, I.L., McKoeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002) offer a 3 Tier model for teaching vocabulary.

  • Tier 1 words are everyday vocabulary terms that we don't need to reteach. For example, you wouldn't need to teach a group of third graders what alphabet, add, or subtract means. 
  • Tier 2 words are general academic, meaning students should understand these terms across the curriculum. Tier 2 words should be our primary focus for instruction. For example, you would want your high school students to understand the meaning of the words analyze and hypothesize. 
  • Tier 3 words are domain specific and may require pre-teaching before an assignment; however, they shouldn't be our primary focus. For example, the term balance sheet is associated with finance and is not essential in a Chemistry classroom.
Tip # 2 - It's About Meaningful Interactions

According to Marzano, students need to have at least 6 meaningful interactions with a vocabulary word to understand it.  It begins with creating opportunities for students to use and interact with vocabulary in different ways. Here are tips:
  • Writing prompts are a great tool to have students practice using vocabulary. At the Milton Hershey School, each class begins with a writing prompt called a Do Now. This idea is so that students can begin thinking about a particular topic or reflect on their prior knowledge.
  • Many teachers incorporate "Word Splashes," where students are provided a list of vocabulary terms and have to incorporate them into a writing assignment. 
  • Not all students learn the same and often need different ways of interpreting the meaning of a word. Perhaps you want to use video clips, visual dictionaries like Visuwords or Infovisual, or hands on activities to encourage learning. One teacher that I know has students create comic strips of complex scientific concepts, which help students attach meaning to the term. 
  • Word walls are excellent tools for students to have available. It should be an accumulation of your Tier 2 and 3 words throughout the semester. Not only do they serve as a visual, but you can design activities and games around the vocabulary. You can put them on a poster, bulletin board, or simply use your chalkboard. 
Our final installment of this blog series will feature specific ways of encouraging students to read.

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