Introduction to Teaching English as a Second Language - Vocabulary Development
Words are tools we use to access our background knowledge, express ideas, and learn about new concepts. Word knowledge is crucial to reading comprehension, and determines how well learners will be able to comprehend the texts they read.
Although it is true that comprehension is far more than recognizing words and remembering their meanings, it is also true that if a reader does not know the meaning of a sufficient proportion of the words in the text, comprehension is impossible.
Helping students develop strong reading vocabulary requires more than having them look up words in a dictionary. Students need instruction that will help them acquire new word knowledge and develop strategies that enable them to increase the depth of that knowledge over time.
To help students develop word knowledge in breadth and depth, we must first recognize the obstacles to vocabulary development and then develop teaching practices to address those obstacles.
Obstacles to Vocabulary Development
The first obstacle is the size of the task. Another obstacle is the limitation of sources of information about words.
The sources of information about words that are readily available to students are dictionaries, word parts, and context. These sources pose their own problems. Each can be difficult to use, uninformative, or even misleading.
Another obstacle is the complexity of word knowledge. Knowing a word involves much more than knowing its dictionary definition, and simply memorizing a dictionary definition does not guarantee the ability to use a word in reading or writing.
Students’ ability to use word parts such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots to interpret new words can contribute greatly to their vocabulary growth. Therefore, it is important for instructors to teach word parts in addition to vocabulary words.
There are two types of words; function words and content words. Function words are words that have a syntactic function used to alert a reader to the structure of the sentence. These words include: are, that, a, to, or, the, and of. Without function words English sentences would be unintelligible.
Content words are the nouns, verbs, and adjectives that carry information in a text. Content words can be concrete or abstract.
Concrete words have an observable object of reference. For example, things, colors, sounds.
Abstract words are more difficult to picture, feel, or hear. Because of that, abstract words are more difficult to learn than concrete words.
Concrete and Abstract Words
When teaching vocabulary, the meaning of concrete words can be shown, whereas the meaning of abstract words has to be taught through examples.
According to reading specialists, readers need to know 3,000 - 5,000 words in the language they are reading in order to read independently. Studies have shown that explicit instruction in vocabulary development is helpful to adult learners.
Activities for Vocabulary Development
Let’s look at some activities that foster vocabulary development with literacy-level learners.
First, remember to use vocabulary that has real meaning for the learners.
Use and repeat vocabulary by using such activities as labeling pictures in words, putting the pictures and words together, matching pictures and words
Also, keep a running list of vocabulary words that learners bring into your classroom, of words you identify, and words that come up in class and refer to those words often. As students do various activities, they will refer to them as needed. You can do the same thing with a list of sentences or phrases.
One fundamental idea to keep in mind is to always keep the expressed needs of the learners as guides of what vocabulary to work on.