Two-thirds of students in the U.S. are struggling with reading and the gap is widening, according to recent NAEP testing. Although insufficient decoding skills are typically thought to be the reason for weak comprehension skills among students, research has revealed that in many cases, an area of pronounced weakness for struggling readers is vocabulary. As a language arts teacher and learning specialist, I have been alarmed by the decline in vocabulary knowledge I’ve witnessed over the years.
Starting several years ago, my colleagues, speech-language pathologists Beth Lawrence and Deena Seifert, began questioning long-held assumptions about how students should be taught vocabulary. They wondered whether rote memorization of dictionary definitions, a hallmark of vocabulary instruction for decades, ought to be used at all, considering that these definitions often include even more unfamiliar terms, further taxing students, especially those with a language deficit.
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They also hypothesized that students would benefit more from some of the tried-and-true approaches used for vocabulary instruction—explaining how words can be used in a variety of contexts, providing student-friendly definitions, offering repetition, emphasizing morphology (i.e., Greek and Latin roots), and supporting with visual cueing—if they were used alongside an approach that employs alternative modalities to teach word meanings.
Semantic reasoning is a unique approach developed by Beth and Deena that calls into play alternate modalities by asking students to learn and retrieve new words through non-verbal means.