By Doug Buehl
The “checkerspot butterfly”– a colorful photograph splashed across the newsprint immediately snags your attention. A quick scan of the accompanying newspaper article reveals the following prominent vocabulary terms: invasive, habitat, greenhouse gases, extinction, assisted migration, biodiversity, ecological, ice age, species, transported, and conservation biologist.
Consider for a moment how an author might put these terms into play in a news story about butterflies. Given what you know about each of these words, how might they contribute to the development of the author’s message? Which terms might you expect to find linked in some way in this article? Perhaps extinction and species . . . or biodiversity and habitat? What other potential combinations occur to you?
As you continue to inventory your knowledge of these concepts, you identify additional terms from the article that also appear significant to what the author has to tell us—grassland, climate, latitude, global warming, carbon dioxide, range, polar bears, and preserves? How might some of these terms intersect with those culled from your initial perusal of the text? Grassland seems a good link with habitat, perhaps, greenhouse gases with global warming, and so forth.
As readers, we realize that a flow of significant vocabulary guides our thinking through written texts. Of course, our comprehension of these texts hinges on the knowledge of key vocabulary that we bring to our reading. But we are also called upon to tap into our partial knowledge of words, our hunches about words that are still unfamiliar to a degree, and our predictions about words based on our attempts to glean an overall sense of meaning from a passage.
Finally, we realize that vocabulary words operate as semantic networks, not as isolated packets of definitional information. Words are better understood in conjunction with their “companion” words—“fellow-traveler” terms they share some relationship with. In their “natural environment” words do not exist alone; instead they are interwoven into extended language to craft meaningful communications.
Past Reading Room columns have focused on the limits of narrow definitions of new vocabulary and emphasized instead “explaining” an unfamiliar word by elaborating how the word “works” in a variety of meaningful contexts. An explanation for the word invasive, for example, might entail: “Something that is invasive arrives and begins to take over. An invasive species crowds out other plants or animals that used to thrive in an area. When you are being invasive, you start to dominate in an unwelcome way.”
A variety of instructional strategies can help students perceive new vocabulary as enmeshed in associational networks with other significant terms. Strategies which prompt students to look beyond individual words with isolated meanings have great promise in building vocabulary and enhancing reading comprehension.
Step 1: Select a core of key vocabulary from a text students will be reading. Focus on words that are related to important ideas in the story or selection. The words you choose for student attention should help guide readers through central ideas or events.
Pay special attention to words that readers tend to encounter in written texts rather than through spoken language (referred to in previous columns as “tier 2” words). In addition, target words that represent academic concepts (referred to previously as “tier 3” words.) In our opening scenario, invasive and migration are examples of significant tier 2 words, and biodiversity and habitat illustrate important tier 3 words.
Present these words to students as a group, rather than as a series of “stand-alone” new vocabulary terms. Blachowicz (1986) suggests the “Exclusion Brainstorming” strategy as one method for initial exploration of a core group of words. For this activity, intersperse words that are not found in the text—and which do not necessarily seem consistent with topics in the reading—with the set of words you selected from the passage.
In our opening example, we might provide the following array of words for students to examine: invasive, habitat, cholesterol, greenhouse gases, extinction, assisted migration, teleprompter, biodiversity, ecological, asphalt, species, and conservation biologist.
Introduce this set of words by noting that several were taken from a selection that the class will be reading, on the topic of the checkerspot butterfly. In groups, have them consider which words are the “odd” ones which do not appear in the article and should be struck from the list.
As students deliberate, they begin to anticipate possible themes of the butterfly article and to identify likely vocabulary that could communicate those themes. As students share knowledge about the words in this set, they are likely to decide that words like cholesterol, teleprompter, and asphalt do not seem as likely to be used as the others. The key dynamic here is the collaborative discussion about word knowledge, not that students discover all the superfluous terms. Some words actually in the article might be struck because students lack sufficient knowledge of them, or these words might appear in unexpected ways in the text. Or students might suppose that asphalt belongs because a butterfly’s habitat could be covered with asphalt.
Step 2: To further elicit student examination of this core group of words, arrange the key vocabulary into two columns. Place words that might be more challenging or unfamiliar in Column A. Related but more common words are listed in Column B. Our butterfly example might be:
Next introduce the “Connect Two” strategy (Blachowicz, 1986). Students work with partners to create five sets of pairs, each pair consisting of a link between words from each column. For each pair, they must explain how the two words might be meaningfully connected. Secondly, they create a sentence that puts the two words “in play” together. These sentences should represent ideas that students predict might occur in an article on butterflies that contains such a core group of words.
For example, extinction from Column A might be paired with global warming from Column B. The explanation of this pair’s connection might be: “global warming is making it harder for some plants and animals to survive, which could cause their extinction.” A predictive sentence illustrating this pair could be: “Global warming is threatening the extinction of the checkerspot butterfly.”
Of course, other partners could pair these terms differently. Greenhouse gases might be paired with global warming, or polar bears with extinction. The intent behind Connect Two is to engage students in conversations about their vocabulary knowledge that focus on relationships between words as they might occur within a topic of study.
Step 3: Next, students read the text. Ask them to “notice” how the author employed the words they have been discussing while they are reading.
When they have completed their reading, students continue their vocabulary exploration. Select six to eight of the terms to receive more in-depth emphasis. For example, you might select: invasive, habitat, assisted migration, range, extinction, biodiversity, and conservation biologist.
Partners then write a statement using each word to summarize the portion of text where the word was used by the author. When these eight statements are completed, students will have practiced their new vocabulary by embedding these terms into a summary of the article about the checkerspot butterfly. A sample could be:
Invasive plants have taken over places in the San Francisco Bay area, replacing the plants that the checkerspot butterfly depends on to live. The habitat for the checkerspot butterfly has changed, and fewer of them can be seen in the San Francisco Bay area. One proposal to help the butterfly is assisted migration, which involves moving the butterflies to a new area which has the habitat they need. And so forth.
This phase of vocabulary development asks students to experiment with integrating these words into their own language, in a highly contextualized manner, by talking about their understanding of a now familiar passage. Because they have the author’s use of the word as a model, they are more apt to be comfortable using the words themselves.
Step 4: As a variation, you can return to the Connect Two columns presented earlier, asking students to create new sets of pairs, and write sentences using both words to talk about what they have learned about the checkerspot butterflies from the passage. This variation can also be included as an assessment of both the students’ comprehension as well as their evolving understanding of the target words.
Strategies like Connect Two enable students to develop a facility with using new vocabulary as they engage as readers to learn new material.
- Students encounter new vocabulary as “extended families” of words that are related to each other, rather than as definitions that need to be memorized.
- Students are encouraged to draw on their partial knowledge of words to speculate about possible meanings in the context of a core group of words about a theme or topic.
- Students receive practice using new vocabulary in their speaking and writing as they express their understandings of a written text.
Blachowicz, C. (1986). Making connections: Alternative to the vocabulary notebook. The Journal of Reading. Vol. 29, No. 7, pp. 643-649.
Doug Buehl, teacher, Madison East High School
Wisconsin State Reading Association.
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Posted February 1, 2007