Friday, May 11, 2012

Vocabulary Instruction

I had intended to record myself teaching vocabulary this week, but I've only just had a chance to finish the Nation and Harmer readings and did not do so in time, so I'll be able to write a fresher and more detailed reflection on this topic on Monday.

After reading the material, I think it's clear that I need to change the way I teach vocabulary!  In particular, Nation's article concerning the ways in which teachers should prioritize and approach vocabulary in a lesson does not line up with what I have been doing, to date.  Specifically, I have been spending too much time explicitly teaching vocabulary and I've been spending far too much time on low-frequency vocabulary.  

I meet each of my sixth grade classes twice a week for forty minutes at a time.  Class-time is precious, and yet I often spend time having the students infer the meanings of low-frequency words from our text.  For example, when my advanced classes read a narrative about the Dust Bowl in Texas on Thursday, I had them using context clues to infer the meanings of a variety of words: most of them were high-mid frequency, but I also included the low-frequency word "thistle".  Looking back, I could have saved time by quickly giving the meaning of some of these words and had enough time to bring the students back into contact with a variety of vocabulary words with another exercise.  This would have been beneficial because the students would have had an extra meeting with the vocabulary words and because I could have presented the words in new or slightly different contexts, strengthening the students' overall understanding of their usages.

One challenge that I face is that, since my classes only meet twice a week, it is difficult to have the students interact with vocabulary enough times that they'll remember it the next week.  Nation writes that students should meet the vocabulary words, ideally, several times within a few days.  Since I am already having to skip masses of textbook content in order to balance the school's desire to "finish" it and the actual time needed for my students to learn, I might as well slice and dice the material such that the second class of the week can repeat more of the first class' material on a regular basis.

I think the most important changes I can make to the way I have been presenting vocabulary are to be more selective in the words I choose to focus on and to ensure that my students encounter those words more frequently, especially in the crucial days after first exposure.

Edit: Looking back on this writing, I actually think teaching a word like 'thistle' is justified at least insofar as it gives the students practice using context clues to discover meaning.  The issue I'm dealing with is an extreme lack of time and my own reluctance to skip huge amounts of textbook content... it just doesn't feel right...

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