I just finished drafting a vocabulary quiz for the co-requisite section of my ALP (Accelerated Learning Program) freshman writing course. Vocabulary instruction has long been a challenge in developmental English, integrated reading and writing, and basic composition courses. I think we would all agree that contextualized vocabulary instruction is the way to go, but how do we actually make that happen in the classroom?
This week I watched my students struggle to paraphrase key points in an assigned text, and a lack of requisite vocabulary appeared to be the source of the problem: words in our target passages were unknown to the students, and they searched, often unsuccessfully, for “their own words” to explain the point. “Use your own words” is the standard advice from texts and websites in explaining paraphrase. “But what if I don’t have the words?” That is the student response which drives me to work on how I teach vocabulary.
How do I approach vocabulary instruction? My students’ previous experiences were often limited to word lists and tedious worksheets. Some had to write their own sentences using target words. I have tried that exercise as well, but besides the fact that it is divorced from either a realistic context or audience, it also invites plagiarism (just Google “Use _____ in a sentence”). Quizzes, flashcards, bonus points for use in essays (which generally results in contorted prose) – I’ve employed all of these at some point.
My current strategy begins in context: I select a limited number of words from assigned readings. Our initial introduction, in the context of close reading, focuses on a traditional analysis of meaning and word parts: we talk about definitions, roots, suffixes, pronunciation, spelling, and whatever anecdotes or examples I can think of.
Next, I endeavor to make sure students hear and see the words again – in additional close reading exercises, in paraphrase practice, on our Blackboard page, in emails, in course handouts, in discussions. I weave the words in wherever it makes sense to do so, reminding students that these words live outside of the text where we originally encountered them.
I also make time to talk about collocations, using frames and editing exercises: Someone succumbs TO something, not FOR something or ON something.
And, in traditional fashion, I mention parts of speech. At the outset of the term, honestly, most of the students don’t see any point in learning that “flagrant” is an adjective or “perpetuate” is a verb. But I will offer sentences such as these for consideration:
The left tackle flagrants his illegal blocks.
He gave a very perpetuate response.
Oh my! That was a flagrant if I've ever seen one.
Student responses to these vary at first: some look at definitions only and will mark such sentences as logical and well-formed. Others recognize problems, although they cannot identify the nature of those problems. But gradually, they begin to employ a grammatical metalanguage: “flagrant is an adjective, but this sentence puts it in a noun spot.” I can push them on this: “How do you know it’s a noun slot?” “It has ‘a,’ and that indicates a noun.” We test and we probe; we try different variations and we edit. Students explore questions – is there a noun form of “flagrant”? If not, how could I adjust the sentence?
These discussions emphasize that the context of a word includes more than semantics: words have syntactic, lexical, and discourse contexts as well.
We also talk about language change: students are very aware of functional shift, although they might not know the term. We talk about “adulting,” (which my computer just auto-corrected to “adulating”), and they see that –ing suffixes are one piece of evidence that a word has been “verbed.”
Most importantly, however, we talk about vocabulary as something they already have and that they can get more of; in fact, they have a right to it. Like most forms of capital, vocabulary as linguistic currency provides a measure of power, and it has not been distributed equally. My instruction should make it accessible to them. And, as proprietors of the language, they too can be instrumental in creating new vocabulary and fostering language change.
I would love to hear from other developmental English and basic writing instructors: what’s your approach to vocabulary?