Unfamiliar Words Part 1: Context

In my last post on vocabulary, I discussed the vocabulary gap. This was the idea that students who know words tend to add more words quicker than those who have smaller vocabularies. In the next two posts I want to explore how the majority of new words are learnt and how we as teachers can help.

Nagy and Anderson (1987) suggest that students learn an average of about 3000 words a year. Breaking this down, we are talking about 9-10 new words to be learnt every day.  The overwhelming majority of these words are not learnt through direct instruction. Most are learnt through listening and reading. I am going to look at the three main strategies that students can use to understand unfamiliar vocabulary(context, dictionary,word parts), the problems with these and how we can try to develop them so that:

  1. Unfamiliar words do not hamper students understanding of what they are reading.
  2. Students build their vocabulary and ‘own’ more words. By owning a word, I mean that they understand its meaning and can use it themselves.

Using contextual clues to work out meaning

When we take into account the sheer number of words students learn, we realise that they must get the majority of these from context clues. Word learning in this way is more incremental than instant-most of the words are learnt following multiple encounters with them in a variety of contexts. The chances of gaining complete ‘ownership’ of a word after one encounter are less but not impossible.

Consider the example below from The Twits by Roald Dahl:

Mr Twit put on a very solemn face. ‘At the rate you’re going,’ he said, shaking his head sadly, ‘I’d say not more than ten or eleven days.’

If you had not encountered the word ‘solemn’ before, you would be able to assume that it is another word for ‘sad’. The context of Mrs Twit shrinking would also give clues. However, the reader would not get the nuanced meanings of solemn and how that is subtly different from ‘sad’.  Another exposure to the word would probably do the trick. In the example above, you wouldn’t need to understand what the word solemn means to make sense of the passage either.

But it isn’t always the case that context leads to understanding. Look at this example, from Loving and Giving by Molly Keane: ‘Solemn and clamorous, a choir of young people filed across the hall to the staircase.’ It would be difficult to glean the meaning of solemn from this sentence. In fact, you may end up arriving at a completely opposite meaning if you associate a choir with happy, joyful singing. A reader with a poorer vocabulary could make sense of it but may only really get that a choir moved from the hall to the staircase(assuming that they know the word ‘choir’). Enough to just get by but not enough to understand and then own the words.

A further problem with contextual clues is that there gets a tipping point where students don’t know enough words in the passage to make sense of it and therefore any new words. Without comprehension of the text, they cannot make leaps of understanding. Less words=poorer comprehension=less words.

So how can we help those with less developed vocabularies to use context to help them?

First of all, encourage students to read and create many opportunities for them to do so.

In addition, students should be taught lots of knowledge: knowledge of words but also knowledge of concepts, of culture and of history. As individuals, we can only address one part of a student’s schooling but this is not an argument not to do so. More knowledge will lead to a greater ability to understand words from context.

Students should be taught to be able to distinguish between words essential to the understanding of the text and words which are not as crucial.

An understanding of synonyms and antonyms will be helpful. In the example from The Twits, it is a synonym that helps the most.

Students should be guided towards texts where they will understand about 90% of the words. This will help to ensure that they comprehend the text while still building a vocabulary of newly learnt words. It is quite difficult to get this exactly right. Some programs such as Renaissance Reading encourage students to read within their ‘ZPD’. As a way of increasing vocabulary development I am in favour, although I have concerns that the approach of choosing books in this way can lead to a lack of reading for pleasure.

I would also encourage students to read non-fiction as language is much more functional in non-fiction and they are unlikely to encounter the nuances of language as much as in fiction. Also, in non-fiction, you are much more likely to come across examples like the one below where the word is defined within the text. The words in content areas like this are more readily attached to the concepts they are describing too.

The right side of the heart pumps de-oxygenated blood (blood not containing oxygen) to the lungs to pick up oxygen. The left side of the heart pumps the oxygenated blood from the lungs around the rest of the body.

We should model the process of working out meaning. To practice working out words from meanings, you could look at the British National Corpus and look at multiple uses of the same word.

Students should also be encouraged to read around areas of interest and expertise. They are more likely to learn words in familiar contexts. If you look at the passage below, taken from FourFourTwo magazine, the vocabulary is quite complex. If you were a fan of football, you’d know about Luis Suarez and Liverpool and the words are more easily understood.

Luis Suarez – Liverpool & Uruguay

He’s hardly the most likeable chap in the world, but Suarez’s mischief off the ball shouldn’t take away from his expertise on it. Silky and industrious, the Uruguayan was accused of wastefulness at the start of the season, but his goals are only a small part of his influence: his presence in an erratic Liverpool side threatens to shift them into genuine top four contenders.

There are obviously other factors at play when reading and I acknowledge that reading a football magazine will not build the knowledge and cultural capital necessary but it will build vocabulary.  And vocabulary is an important form of knowledge.

Next: Unfamiliar Words Part 2: Dictionaries and Word Parts

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