“Reading increases one’s vocabulary,” I tell incoming freshmen every fall. But up until now, I have had little evidence to support this claim. It is true that reading exposes students to new words, but I never went out of my way to help students sort through these new words.
Instead, as a junior English teacher, I regularly taught SAT vocabulary as part of my Advanced Composition curriculum. Students completed chapters from the Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary Workshop books and took quizzes every other week. While some students relished the challenge, many saw little relevance to their own lives, retaining few words by the end of the year.
In turn, this year I have turned from my well-worn Sadlier Oxford books and have instead had students reference their independent reading books for new words. Students develop their own lists of eight words every other week. My goal in doing this is not only to have students slow down their reading, but to also expose them to diction and complexity within their independent books. Once again, like many of the mini-lessons within the workshop classroom, this practice also turns into a lesson on craft and intention within a writer’s work.
Too often students skim over large words, failing to activate context clues and prior knowledge to help them draw out meaning. By creating vocabulary lists, students must practice these skills while also recording definitions, synonyms, passages, and parts of speech.
The benefit is twofold: students have a say in their vocabulary and immediately see both the relevance and payoff of understanding a new word. At the same time, having independent vocabulary lists eliminates cheating and encourages independence. Instead of worrying about students’ wandering eyes during quizzes, I spend time helping students understand the words they have picked. In addition, independent vocabulary lists provide insight into students’ reading levels and comprehension. I have learned more about my students’ reading lives simply by becoming aware of the words they find challenging.
Every other week, students complete a summative assessment that helps gauge their understanding of their eight vocabulary words. Two weeks ago I had students complete “Rock and Roll Vocabulary,” an activity that requires students to roll dice and answer questions about their vocabulary corresponding to specific numbers. This week students will complete a grid about various words.
While I am still new to this vocabulary approach, I feel confident in my students’ choices. Oftentimes I have seen the typical “SAT words” pop up in multiple lists, reinforcing that students will indeed choose challenging vocabulary. The process is far from perfect, and my students and I are still ironing out some of the flaws. Some students intentionally pick easy words, but the next assessment will require them to rank the difficulty of their words. In addition, I allow retakes of vocabulary summative assessments considering students made a “good faith effort” according to our school’s retake policy. Finally, not all independent books offer complex language, which can be a struggle for students who love the content yet can’t seem to find their eight or so words. In those instances, students may pull from in-class readings, articles, and textbooks. If they still struggle, I have books of SAT vocabulary they may choose from instead.
While this method of teaching is somewhat nontraditional, it provides students with continued say in their education. Not only are they empowered by their newfound words, but also by the end, I hope my students will see that reading truly does increase one’s vocabulary.