Thursday, August 1, 2013

Teaching Advanced Vocabulary from Literature

by Derek Spencer

Last week we asked a question on our Facebook page: what ELA content areas do teachers find most challenging to teach? Today I want to share some ideas about teaching advanced-level vocabulary with literary texts. It's my hope that we can use this as the starting point for a discussion, an exchange of ideas that will help other teachers grappling with the same task. If you want to add to the discussion, please do!

First, let's lay out some of the issues that might make teaching vocabulary with literature difficult.

1. Large word lists.

Some literary texts contain hundreds of AP- and/or SAT-level words, and reducing the number of words to a manageable list is a challenge.

2. Determining which words are most important.

Should you teach the words that are most likely to appear on standardized tests? The words that students are most likely to encounter in daily life?

3. Coordinating lessons across your whole curriculum

Which words should you teach early in the year, and which words should you teach later?

4. Developing retention strategies

How can you ensure students will retain words and incorporate them into their vocabularies?

I think all these challenges are interrelated, and trying to solve one will likely help you solve another. I'm sure I'm missing some challenges here, so please alert me in the comments to any blind spots. That said, let's move on to possible solutions. 

If I were designing a course of vocabulary instruction using literature, the first thing I would do would be to take a look at all the literary texts I would be teaching over the year and determine the number of weeks I could afford to spend teaching each text.  Then I would determine the number of vocabulary words I want my students to learn each week. Multiply the number of weeks by the number of words and you have the number of words in the vocabulary list for each text. So, if I were teaching Hamlet for four weeks and I wanted to teach my students 15 words per week, I'd select the 60 most essential vocabulary words from Hamlet.

How can we determine which words are "most essential," though? A few criteria I think we should look at:

  1. A word's appearance in multiple texts
  2. The frequency of the word in modern usage
  3. The likelihood students will encounter the word on standardized tests
Personally, I would prioritize #1 on this list. I would look at all the texts I planned to teach for that year and cross-reference vocabulary lists. Any word that appears in more than one text would be part of the vocabulary unit for the text taught earliest in the school year. Students will learn a word they'll need again later in the year (and reading this word again in a text taught later will help with long-term retention), and you'll have space for another word on a word list later in the year.

Once you have your word list for each text, you can develop your weekly units. Of course, some excellent words won't make it onto your word lists, but you can't possibly teach every word (and students can't possibly retain them all). Students should certainly be instructed to determine the meaning of any unfamiliar word they come across, regardless of whether it's on the vocabulary list — after all, if they don't understand the individual words they're reading, they won't understand the meaning of the text as a whole.

What this method doesn't help with, however, is sifting through each text to find appropriate vocabulary words. That, unfortunately, requires much more work on the part of the teacher.

Prestwick House offers a line of materials, Vocabulary from Literature, that collects vocabulary words from specific titles and packages them in chapter-by-chapter lessons. Not all the words in each unit can be described as AP-level, but you might find them useful. You can check out some sample pages here.

Thanks for reading!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

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