Quick Tip Tuesday: Finding the meaning of unknown vocabulary

March 23rd, 2010

When reading nonfiction texts, many children are hindered in their understanding when they come across an unfamiliar word. To solve this problem and to equip students with the necessary strategies to decode unknown words, Tony Stead shows students how to look for clues in the text and how to use a book’s glossary for clues. In his book, Reality Checks: Teaching Reading Comprehension with Nonfiction K-5, Tony outlines many other practical approaches to help children become confident readers of nonfiction.

In Lisa’s classroom we realized that before providing demonstrations, we needed to initiate talk about what strategies the children themselves used when faced with challenging vocabulary. We achieved this by reading part of a text on whales. When we came to a challenging word, we stopped and talked about ways we could determine its meaning. The children came up with many suggestions, so we charted their responses.

Strategies to Use When You Don’t Know the Meaning of a Word

■ Look in a dictionary.
■ Ask a friend.
■ Ask the teacher.
■ Context clues
Read back.
Read forward.
Read over. Stop and think.
Look for important words around it.
■ Look in the glossary.
■ Break the word apart.
Think about the meaning of each part.
Put it back together.
■ Use the picture.

It was not surprising that looking in a dictionary was their number one reply, yet the set of class dictionaries appeared to be gathering dust, indicating it had been some time since our learners had used them. It is also the number one response of most children in classrooms where I’ve worked, because they have been instructed so many times to rely on this strategy. Yet rarely do they employ it when faced with an unknown word. They find going through a dictionary laborious and tedious, and the reading becomes joyless. This is especially true when they encounter a barrage of unknown words in one piece and find themselves with the dictionary as their main source of reading rather than the selected text.

Many children haven’t even been instructed in how to properly use a dictionary and spend their time aimlessly flicking through pages, hoping the unknown word will magically appear. What is even more frustrating to learners is that if they happen to chance on the word, its meaning uses even more complex vocabulary than the word itself, leaving the children totally confused.

The children were aware of a multitude of good strategies that could assist them, but they rarely used them. Clearly they could talk the talk, but not walk the walk. We sorted the strategies into two categories: primary and secondary. For primary strategies, the reader uses methods within the body of the text to solve word meanings. Secondary strategies require the reader to go outside the body of the text, whether it be a glossary, a dictionary, or simply asking another person for assistance. We encouraged children to use primary strategies before secondary strategies. This way they were not always having to go outside the body of the text to find word meanings, which inevitably interrupts the reading and compromises comprehension. An example of the list below can be found in Appendix E.

What to Do if You Don’t Know the Meaning of a Word

Primary Strategies
■ Context clues
Read back.
Read forward.
Read over. Stop and think.
Look for important words around it.
■ Break the word apart.
Think about the meaning of each part.
Put it back together.
■ Use the picture.

Secondary Strategies
■ Look in the glossary.
■ Look it up in a dictionary.
■ Ask a friend.
■ Ask the teacher.

Once the lists were completed, we modeled how they could be of assistance when students were faced with unknown vocabulary. We knew explicit modeling was needed, which is often the missing link in instruction. Too often we solicit talk from the children and they give us what we want to hear, yet they have not internalized how to use the strategy independently.

We brought the children to the meeting area, and Lisa and I took turns reading Chapter 1 of a text called The Voice for the Animals by Evelyn Brooks. We made sure all the children could see the text as we read it to them. We told the children that as the text was read, they should raise their hands if they heard a word whose meaning they didn’t know.

What Are the SPCAs?

“Throughout the United States, there are many local organizations that work to save the lives of abandoned and mistreated animals. Each organization is known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The people who work at SPCAs rescue and care for these hurt creatures. At the SPCAs the animals are cleaned and fed. If the animals are healthy and well behaved, they are offered to people for adoption.”

When we read the word abandoned, several hands were raised, so we stopped reading and wrote the word on chart paper. We referred them to the first primary strategy—context clues—and asked whether there were any words or ideas around the word that gave them hints about its meaning. The children told us that mistreated and organizations that work to save gave them clues, so we recorded those on the chart next to the word abandoned. We asked them to discuss with the student next to them possible meanings of the word based on the key words around it and recorded their responses.

We then asked which words were most likely the true meaning. The children came up with the words hurt and left through the process of elimination. They agreed that smacked didn’t make sense because lots of people smack their dogs when they are naughty, and an organization that tried to stop this didn’t make sense. As Katie put it, “You’re not saving an animal’s life if you stop the owner from smacking it.” The words yelled at were also quickly eliminated for the same reason. This left hurt and left, which both made sense, so we then looked to other primary strategies: breaking the word apart and looking at the picture. These appeared to offer little support, so we suggested we leave our primary strategies and look to the first secondary strategy: the glossary. This was met with some resistance, as the children informed us that only words in bold such as prevention and adoption would be in the glossary. Therefore, in the children’s eyes this was a waste of time. When I showed them the glossary with the word abandoned, they were stunned. “But how can that be?” Jeremy asked. This was a good question, so we gave the children some time to think until Alex asked to look at the previous pages of the book. I showed the children the page before, which happened to be the introduction.

I had not read it to them, and there was the word abandoned in bold print. This was a valuable learning experience for our children, for they realized that you can’t assume a word won’t be in the glossary just because it isn’t highlighted on a specific page. They had also learned that when trying to locate the meaning of unknown vocabulary, you sometimes need to use more than one strategy. Harry summed it up perfectly when he said, “I feel like a detective looking for clues and some of these are hidden from me. You have to look carefully.”

Harry’s notion of being a word detective was one that appealed to the children, so we ensured that when reading texts that had complex vocabulary we always put on our detective hats and used our strategy chart to help solve the mystery. Sometimes Lisa and I would provide texts that contained vocabulary that could be solved only with the use of a dictionary. Other times we used texts with complex vocabulary that could be easily solved by simply breaking the word into parts, such as compound words. Our goal was to get our learners to start using these strategies naturally as they read independently so that their comprehension of informational texts was not lost. To achieve this goal we needed to provide ongoing demonstrations.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Reading

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