Strategies for helping students understand new words

Strategies for helping students understand new words

Some words may be easy to spell, but the meaning can take some time for students to understand. 

It's important to remember that words are just tags. They're tags for things. They're tags for ideas. They're tags for concepts. When it comes to vocabulary building, it's not enough for students to simply know how to spell a word. They have to understand what it stands for, what it means.

Some words tag simple to understand ideas, but the word itself may not be so simple. On the other hand, some words are pretty simple, but the concept they represent is more complex for students to understand. Because of this, teachers need to have several strategies on hand to teach students how to understand different words. 

 

Simple concept, complex word

The word archipelago is a great example of a simple concept tagged by a complex word. Archipelago is challenging to say, difficult to spell, but it doesn't tag a particularly hard to comprehend concept. An archipelago is a group of islands, so if I want my students to learn what an archipelago is, I would probably show them a few pictures.

To ensure the word becomes embedded in their long-term memory, I would focus on repeated exposure. For complex words that tag easy to understand concepts, repeated exposure will do the job.

 

Simple word, complex concept

Some words are easy to say, relatively easy to spell, but tag a much more abstract concept. So when we're looking at strategies to teach vocabulary, we have to bear this in mind.

We find a lot of these words pop up in the subject of Maths. Ratio is an excellent example of one of these words - it is easy to say, relatively easy to spell, but the concept can be difficult for students to understand. 

These more challenging concepts and ideas need to be taught using vocabulary maps. The Frayer model is an excellent one for this purpose.

This technique asks students to define the word and apply their knowledge by generating examples, listing characteristics, and perhaps even drawing a picture to illustrate the word's meaning. This work can be added to a chart divided into four sections. The result is a visual representation for students to help them understand a more complex concept. 

 

Of course, there will be words that don't fall into these two categories. Simple words that represent simple concepts are easier to teach. Repeated exposure is the key! Whereas complex words that tag a difficult concept will require a more focused approach.

 

Takeaways: 

  • Building vocabulary is more than just providing students with a list of words. 
  • To ensure your students understand the meaning of a word, you should focus on the complexity of the concept the word tags - not how hard it is to spell or say. 

 

My book Hooking Students Into Learning... in all Curriculum Areas contains more than 70 activities for building vocabulary. These hook exercises are quick activities that can kick off your lessons and get students into a learning mindset while building vital literacy skills.


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