Vocabulary words - less is more

Do you remember weekly spelling lists when you were in school?

Photo Credit: Stocksnap.io

Photo Credit: Stocksnap.io

I remember little paperback spelling books filled with word lists. Some lists had something in common, like subject area or phonics rule, while others seemed random. Then we practiced spelling by copying our assigned list over and over, sometimes doing a word find or crossword puzzle, or competing in Spelling Bees, and then on Friday - the dreaded Spelling Test.

And then there's now - sometimes we teach our kids the same way we were taught. We learned in school with teachers using certain methods, and it's familiar and feels safe, so we use them with our own children. 

The real question is -- have these methods been effective?

  • Do they remember their spelling and vocabulary words days and weeks after a lesson or test?
  • Do they use their spelling and vocabulary words in regular speech or in other writing assignments?

You can help your children do more than just pass a weekly spelling test. By being more selective about the words you introduce, and how you continue to reinforce them, your children can adopt new vocabulary words and integrate them into their speech and writing.

In Choosing Which Words to Teach, Isabel Beck, Margaret McKowen, and Linda Kucan introduced the idea of separating words into three tiers:

  1. Tier One: every usage that requires little explanation or reinforcement (funny, spoon, drive)
  2. Tier Two: high frequency words that are used in a variety of subject areas (reasonable, accident, diligent)
  3. Tier Three: low frequency words specific to a subject area (molecular, linguistics, sedimentary)

Are you intimidated by the idea of selecting words for your kids to learn? “What if there are language gaps?” is a common fear.

Let’s tackle that fear for just a moment - do you ever come across unfamiliar words? How do you figure out what they mean? How did your ‘learning gap’ affect you?

Most of the time, we are able to discern meaning from context and experience. We don’t sit around in abject failure because we don’t know what a word means. We either look it up, or ask for clarification.

It follows that the more we teach children to understand how to discern meaning from context and clues (such as Greek and Latin root words), the more equipped they will be to deal with unfamiliar terms. It simply isn’t realistic to think that we can introduce every word they will ever need.

Stop worrying about what you can’t do, and focus on what you can.

Let’s get back vocabulary selection and teaching language. To choose words for vocabulary integration, look at what your kids are already reading and where they naturally engage.

  • Books and other media: Do they prefer fantasy and science fiction, stories where animals are prominent, modern relationship-centered dramas, graphic novels, or comedies?
  • Interests: Do they enjoy robotics, computers, and coding? Are they building structures with Legos or model kits? Do they love caring for and learning about animals? Are they often at your elbow when you are preparing meals and making desserts? Do they often stare at the stars and learn about astronomy on their own?
  • In the community: Names of businesses and products are a great place to look for a 'play on words' and other marketing tactics that provide a hook so consumers will remember their brand.

Take advantage of your child's natural curiosity for vocabulary building. Whether they are reading, watching television or videos, or just wondering about how things work, have a place to make notes (or better yet, have them make notes) about unfamiliar terms they see and hear. A whiteboard or small journal works just fine for this.

Now, study these words a little more in depth by look up each word's definitions, synonyms and antonyms. Instead of racing toward a spelling test, explore word origins, history, and modern usage.

For example, your student makes note of the word “submersible”. They look up the origins of the word and find that the root sub is Latin for “under, lower than, or inferior to”, and mergere is “plunge or immerse”. Then they can find other words related to “submersible” that use the same root words:

submarine - sub (under) + marinus (of the sea)

submerge - sub (under) + mergere (plunge or immerse)

Modern usage

  • Why do we call long sandwiches “submarine sandwiches” or “subs”?
  • Why did they name a submarine sandwich franchise "Subway"?
  • Why did the Seattle Mariners choose that particular name for their team?

Other subject areas

  • What kinds of submersible vehicles are there, and what are their uses?
  • What kind of sea-related training do the United States Marines receive?
  • What are the name of some famous submarines?
  • How were the underwater scenes for the movie Titanic filmed?

Write, and illustrate if possible, your new vocabulary words on note cards or on a whiteboard, and for one week keep track of how often they are used in books, music, on television and in your community, and try to use them in everyday conversation.

“My waterproof watch is submersible, but my submarine sandwich from Subway is not.”

Far too often we think of education as a competition of some kind, or else we wouldn't act like it's a race. Don’t be fooled into giving your kids 10-20 new words every week, give a Friday spelling test, and call it an "A".

Instead, have fun for a week learning to spell and use a few words that have been part of their reading or hobbies. It isn't as if they aren't going to learn new words in their regular studies, or while engaged in other activities. Being more selective about vocabulary words simply means that you are shining a spotlight on a few words, thereby giving them the tools they need to learn many more words as they move forward with their education. 

They are also far less likely to have Post Spelling Test Amnesia.

Our homeschooling goal is for our children to learn, not perform.

And with vocabulary words, less can be a more effective learning strategy with long term rewards.

How do you help your kids remember and integrate new words into their vocabulary? Share what works for you in the comments below -