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.
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.
To give students the opportunity to learn with their new approach, they created a tool called InferCabulary which requires students to apply critical thinking and context to find the common thread among a series of photographs and attach this concept to a new vocabulary word.
Through this process, students are able to learn new, complex words and/or deepen their understanding of words that they may have only superficially understood at the outset, developing more nuanced and practical vocabulary knowledge, as opposed to the kind of knowledge gained through memorization.
After seeing the results of an independent research study conducted by the University of Virginia, I began using InferCabulary in September 2016 as an alternate way to teach vocabulary in my English Language Arts classroom. Below are seven vocabulary instruction strategies we are using to help students not just acquire, but truly own, new vocabulary.
1. Clarify terms: To begin, we review with students what inferencing is and what types of skills they would need to use in order to draw an inference, such as schema (i.e., students’ background knowledge) and finding text support. This provides a foundation for the type of activities they will engage in throughout their vocabulary study.
2. Use visuals: To help students learn to infer what a word means, learners view six pictures all at once and can click on accompanying captions (text and audio) designed to guide their thinking and identify a common thread among the photos. For example, when students in my fifth grade reading group were learning new vocabulary from the novel Number the Stars, they reviewed the series of photos for each new word and worked in small groups to pull keywords from the photo captions to develop a reasonable working definition. InferCabulary also provides the visual of a mountain climb, so as students complete each task, they are able to track their progress up to the summit.
3. Engage students: Engaging students in their learning is critical to their success. Our use of semantic reasoning as a means to teach vocabulary has helped foster much higher levels of participation among my students. During read-alouds, students will often jump out of their seats when they encounter new words they learned, shouting out, “Ding, ding, ding!” We have not experienced this level of enthusiasm with any other vocabulary instruction technique to date.
4. Encourage collaboration: We have noticed that incorporating teamwork into our vocabulary lessons has many benefits. Students work together to discover the commonality among the words in the captions. They support each other’s learning in small groups and further cement their understanding of new words through whole group discussion. This varied approach to vocabulary instruction has empowered our students to continually critique, justify, and adjust their thinking.
5. Inspire friendly competition: We involved the entire fifth grade in an energizing vocabulary competition during our annual Iditarod unit last year. Students were placed in teams that worked together to determine working definitions for each new Iditarod-related vocabulary word. Teachers then assigned points to each team based on the accuracy of the definition. Students loved the activity, and those with weaker language or vocabulary skills were supported through small group collaboration and the auditory and visual cueing.
6. Address language deficits: As the learning specialist in my division, I recently worked with a new fourth grade student who had been diagnosed with a language deficit. His language impairment was significantly impacting his ability to successfully comprehend text on an independent level. After introducing InferCabulary, “a light switch flipped on” for him. He began smiling as he worked and verbally extended his thinking with me.
7. Use data to inform instruction: Teachers track individual student progress through the teacher dashboard and provide additional support to individual students based on that information. This information also allows teachers to differentiate students’ word lists based on their individual vocabulary levels and include words that are above and below grade level to further support their learning.
Overall, our students are very comfortable with online learning and have benefited from visual support and semantic reasoning to help make sense of the new words they are learning. As a result, we’re starting to close the ever-widening vocabulary gap for our 21st-century learners. The assessment results of our participating students highlighted the impact of our approach. On average, students improved their vocabulary subtest score by one to five stanine score points on the annual ERB assessment.
We look forward to broadening our use of semantic reasoning in the next few years and expect that our students will maintain the strong gains they made in vocabulary, and that more students will experience this growth as more teachers at our school incorporate this approach into their instruction.