early 2005 I spent some time reading about comprehension
as I was new to the ARCT team and this was the area
of focus for our resource development in English. In
my reading I was particularly interested to find that
the gap between decoding and comprehension experienced
by many middle and upper primary students was well documented.
It was something I had experienced and worried about
as a teacher of students at this level.
Vocabulary and grammatical knowledge are significant
factors in influencing reading achievement. Many students
struggle particularly with words that have different
meanings in different contexts. (Pickens, Glynn, Whitehead,
2004). Words that students do not use in their every
day language also cause difficulty.
According to Chall (1983) weak vocabulary leads to poor
reading comprehension that in turn limits vocabulary
development. This cyclic effect is particularly worrying
because as students move up through the school system
it becomes increasingly important that they can read
with understanding across the curriculum. The research
literature suggests that there is a place for explicit
vocabulary instruction within a balanced reading programme.
(Pressley, 2000). http://www.readingonline.org/articles/handbook/pressley/
During term 3, I worked with a group of six Year 7 students
for approximately one hour, once a week. According to
the classroom teacher these students were all able to
“decode” at a relatively high level when
reading but needed support with comprehension. This
was an opportunity for me to try out some strategies
for teaching vocabulary and identify common words that
students could be struggling with.
As a first step a colleague and I looked through several
“Figure it Out” maths books to get an idea
of the sort of vocabulary middle/upper primary aged
students were likely to encounter in instructional material.
then designed some diagnostic assessment activities based
on these words.
commonly used when giving instructions eg. Explain,
describe, compare, contrast
that had different meanings in different contexts
eg. Table, prime, turn
that we thought the students were unlikely to use
in every day conversations eg data, strategy,
From the assessments it became clear that this group of
students had only limited understanding of several words
that I would have previously assumed they would have known.
I then planned a series of lessons that all focused on
the word explain. I attempted to include activities that
would allow the group to construct together a meaning
for the word that was deep enough to be useful for them,
and to heighten interest in words in general. Activities
included oral language games, “post box” type
activities that lead to discussions clarifying meanings,
exploring other words that were derived from explain or
had similar meanings, reading and analysing explanations,
giving explanations and critiquing others’ explanations.
The most important outcome for me from this exercise
was my heightened awareness of how often I used words
that were potentially difficult for students. For instance
the first sentence of a science assessment task we explored
coincidentally contained the words “table”,
“material” and “properties”
– all words which have a different meaning in
science than in every day contexts. During a group discussion
about the words, we agreed that property was something
that belonged to you but that in some situations property
meant specifically land. In science “properties”
refer to the way things behave or look eg shiny, can
be bent, heats up, melts easily. Prior to this intervention
I would not have stopped to think about the range of
meanings “properties” could have, nor the
potential difficulties this could cause for students.
During the time I worked with these students I also
became aware that some of the words that I used in written
feedback were unfamiliar to them and their inability
to infer meaning from the context of what I had written
made my feedback inaccessible and therefore pointless.
Working with these students also gave me opportunities
to explore ways of developing students’ interest
in words and their meanings. I was constantly amazed
by the insights into students’ thinking and the
opportunities for learning that were provided by group
discussions. For instance when discussing the difference
between “describing” a school rule and “explaining”
a school rule (as a follow up to the “post box”
activity) the group as a whole quickly came to realise
that the word “explain” had an element of
“because” in it.
considerations for teaching
In order to develop a classroom climate that promotes
the importance of words and their various meanings:
look at the language in instructions students are
being given and discuss the vocabulary with them.
Are there words with multiple meanings? What does
a particular word mean in this context?
students to ask for clarification of unknown words
– may be build up a class list of words causing
difficulty to identify the really high frequency ones.
language activities that build families of words or
rank words by shades of meaning.
Word maps (See Teachers’ Notes Selections 2005)
language games as a way of promoting interest and
awareness of words and their various meanings.
of these strategies is new, yet I believe if the teacher
is aware of potential difficulties students could be
facing with vocabulary they could all be used effectively,
with little modification to the usual class programme,
to enhance the development of vocabulary.
Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of reading development.
New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pickens, J., Glyn, T., & Whitehead, D. (2004). Students
reading together: A modified reciprocal teaching approach.
Set 3, 2004.