When you were in school, how did you add words to your vocabulary? Several things come to mind for me.
First, I learned a lot of words I shouldn't have learned in my younger years from the foul-mouthed adults around. My father worked a back-breaking, blue collar job, and he also liked to drink beer. A lot of beer. From him and his various buddies tinkering with cars, playing horseshoes, listening to music, and generally just hanging around, I expanded my vulgarity vocabulary regularly. This came in really handy in middle school, and 30 years later as a high school vice principal. There's hardly a word that shocks me.
Another source of vocabulary was the words of my friends and their parents -- words about travel, music, literature, religion, business, and commerce. My family had extremely limited resources. We took one vacation that I can remember in my entire youth. We didn't travel. We didn't shop except for weekly groceries and a bit at Christmas time. No one in my family had a professional job. No one had attended college. So the conversations my friends' families had often taught me words far different from the ones that were used in my household.
Additionally, I was a voracious reader. I spent at least an hour in the public library each week and many more in the school library. I often had to be dragged -- literally -- from a cozy corner in the library and forced to STOP READING. I would rather have read than done anything else in the world -- kickball, dodgeball, bike riding, tree climbing, ANYTHING.
And lastly, my teachers in middle and high school gave us word lists. A word list every week. From ten to twenty words to memorize and then regurgitate on some inane quiz on Friday. Because I was highly competitive -- and because I had long before decided that I would go to college and escape poverty, sadness, alcoholism, boredom -- I aced these quizzes. And not only did I ace them, I often remembered the words long after my peers had forgotten them. I pulled those words out when I needed to impress. Or to sting. Or to profess my undying love.
I was (and am) a total word nerd. I love words. I love language. I love stringing words together to create a reaction.
It didn't take me long after I started teaching high school English to realize that most of my students were not as wordy-nerdy as I. And now, 31 years later, as an author and consultant, I think I know at least one of the reasons why: because vocabulary instruction in American schools is awful.
In spite of decades of research on vocabulary and word learning, many of the practical aspects of that research have failed to trickle down to classroom instructional practice. Teachers still assign random lists of words. They also still say, "Look it up in the dictionary." They often discuss words found in text begrudgingly, saying things like, "I know, that's a big word. I'm not sure why the author doesn't say things more clearly." They provide simplistic definitions, or, worse yet, inaccurate ones. For example, I recently heard a beautiful, young teacher tell her high school freshmen that "wherefore" in the famous balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet means "where" (it does not) and pronounce "tis" as "tiss," like a rhyming word for "kiss." Did she bother to look it up herself? "Tis" is the forerunner of our word "it's" and is pronounced "tiz" just as "is" sounds like "iz." As a word nerd who taught Romeo and Juliet probably 18 times, I was appalled.
Before I get 100 comments on this post saying, "I'm a teacher! I don't teach vocabulary like that!", let me applaud you. But you, my dear, are the minority. As a consultant, I do 300 or so classroom visits per year, from kindergarten up through 12th grade. I may see the perfunctory word wall in half those classes. I may see teachers preteaching vocabulary from a specific test that the class will read. But I rarely, if ever, see a curiosity and passion for teaching words. And even if a teacher is a word nerd like me -- a person who certifiably loves words and wants to share that joy with students -- he or she is usually not well versed in how to best teach vocabulary.
There ARE effective methods in teaching vocabulary. Some of these have been shared in the work of Isabel Beck, Camille Blachowicz, Michael Graves, Janet Allen, and yes, even Robert Marzano, over the past 20 years. However, the knowing-doing gap remains firmly in place.
So what to do? First, model interest in words. Be overly enthusiastic, as you have to be when teaching fractions, photosynthesis, or Julius Caesar. Showing frustration, impatience, or disdain for words only gives your students license to do the same.
Secondly, provide excellent explicit instruction. You can find many resources on how to do this, including Marzano's Building Academic Vocabulary and No More "Look Up the List" Vocabulary Instruction by Blachowicz and colleagues. You may also want to see a book Kimberly Tyson and I wrote called Blended Vocabulary: Harnessing the Power of Digital Tools and Direct Instruction. (Email or tweet me for a sample chapter.)
Third, provide for incidental word learning. That means to have a print-rich environment (yes, secondary folks, that means you, too). It also means to help students learn what to do when they encounter unfamiliar words when watching, reading, and listening.
And last, utilize digital tools and apps to support word learning. Use tools like Word Hippo and Your Dictionary during whole-class instruction to show students how to find definitions, synonyms, and more. Use Vocabulary Spelling City to track the progress of individuals in learning words. Have students log on and play vocabulary games at Free Rice or Prep Factory.
Bottom line: nurture a love of words. Don't just assign words.