Common Core Standards: ELA
Vocabulary Acquisition and Use
4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
Toddlers and young children learn vocabulary without thinking about it - their brains simply absorb new words and new meanings for familiar words with little to no effort on their part. Would that we all were so lucky!
As humans age, we lose the sponge-like ability to soak up new words and meanings - even though, in a globalized world, we need those skills more than ever. Luckily, we never completely lose the ability to learn vocabulary.
Students preparing for college and/or a career should practice the skills they’ll need to decipher the forest of new words they’ll inevitably encounter. Specifically, the Anchor Standards recommend focusing on the following skills:
Understanding words in context. The sentence or paragraph a new word lives in can provide plenty of information about what it means. Often, the sentence alone tells the reader enough to give him a good shot at guessing what the word means. Context is especially important when a single word has multiple meanings.
For instance, the word “glass” may mean a container for a beverage, a flat pane of material used in a window or mirror, or the substance from which both of these are made. A sentence like “I raised my glass to toast their happy marriage,” however, immediately brings to mind the drink-holder type of “glass,” not the used-in-windows type of “glass.” (Similarly, “toast” in this context brings to mind a type of speech, not a piece of cooked bread.)
Examining word parts. English may read like it picks the pockets of other languages for spare vocabulary, but many English words, especially those used in technical or professional fields, use recognizable word parts that give a clear view of what the word means. Perhaps the best-known example is the suffix “-ology,” which means “the study of.”
Using reference materials. When all else fails, look it up! Most students preparing for college or a career are familiar with the basic reference trio of dictionary/thesaurus/encyclopedia, but most specialties have their own specific reference materials along with the tried-and-true favorites.
Sample Activities for Use in Class
Reading Outside Your Sphere: This activity can be done in an hour, or it can serve as an ongoing semester project. Students will need access to magazines, books, and other reading materials. For a one-day assignment, the school library may suffice; for an entire semester, you may want to have students subscribe to a magazine, or use resources at a local public or university library, if available.
Assign, or have each student choose, a topic or area of study about which the student knows little to nothing. More than one student may be assigned to each topic, if necessary. For the duration of the assignment, have the students read a magazine, newsletter, book, or other publication in their unknown topic. As they encounter words they don’t know, students should write down:
1. The word;
2. The sentence the word appears in;
3. Their best guess as to what the word means and what they base that guess on - the context, a definition or example given in the text, the parts of the word, etc. (one or two sentences will suffice); and
4. What the word actually means and where they learned that information (dictionary, website, asking a professional in the field, etc.)
Reading topics they know nothing about will not only expose students to vocabulary they’ve never seen before, but also challenges them to decide what resources are best for finding out.
For this activity, you’ll need a stack of general and specialized reference materials and a stack of cards containing vocabulary words, phrases and concepts that might be found in these reference works. For instance, if your pile of reference materials contains a medical dictionary and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, your cards should include a few medical terms, such as the technical name for certain organs, diseases, or medical procedures.
Divide the class into two or more teams of four to seven students each. Put the stack of reference materials on a table at the front of the room, and divide the cards into one stack per team and set them at the front of the room either with the reference materials or on their own table. (For scoring purposes, it may be easier to color-code the cards for each team.) Students should line up in single-file lines, one per team, facing the reference materials and stacks of cards.
On “go!” (or some similar signal to begin), the first student in each line will race to the front of the room and grab the top card off her team’s stack. The student reads the card, then has to decide as quickly as possible which reference materials are most likely to have the definition of the word, phrase or concept on the card. The student should go through the reference material(s) until she finds the definition, then mark that page in the book with her card and race to the back of her team’s line, at which point the second student on the team runs forward and does the same thing. Once everyone on the team has stuck a card in a book, the entire team should raise its hands.
A team has “won” if all its cards bookmark a page that defines the word on the card. Read the words and the definitions out loud, or have each student read his or hers out loud.