Vocabulary building with Adolescents

It’s a new calendar year…and for me, that typically generates a desire to review how therapy is going, figure out what needs tweaking and really reconsider if I need to change an approach. Of course, I do some of this all of the time, but for some reason that break between Christmas and the New Year really makes me question myself.

This year is no exception…and the two students I find myself cycling back to are older elementary/middle school and vocabulary is the root of the issue…Well, attention and comprehension are really the issue, but we’re tackling the vocabulary aspect of both of those. So, while I had time, I dusted off some research files and started reading…This one I read, really resonated with me and I decided I’d make it the first blog of the new year.

teen vocab

Title: Teaching Words to Adolescents with Language Disabilities

Source: ASHA Perspectives, SIG 1 Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, March 2013, Vol. 20, 67-74. doi:10.1044/lle20.2.67

Author: Judy K Montgomery

Background: Vocabulary is critical for comprehension. Vocabulary acquisition occurs life-long, but adolescents may benefit from creative learning. School-SLPs are often needing to increase intervention efforts for children in middle-school to help alleviate the impact a limited vocabulary and world-knowledge may have. The article discusses the need for increased attention to be spent on vocabulary development as it impacts comprehension, reading fluency, and overall achievement. Vocabulary is key in Common Core State Standards and ASHA’s Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists in Schools documents.

Research shows English has approximately 450,000 words which is approximately three times more than German and six times more than French. New words are continually added. This little bit jumped out at me while I was reading:

“Vocabulary is more than knowing words—it includes knowing synonyms; antonyms; multiple meaning words; modifiers; roots and affixes; and nonreversible word pairs, such as ham and eggs, trial and error, and cause and effect.” 

So it’s not just the sheer number of words – but how those words are related to each other that has a big impact on our students. Here’s some other information from the article:

  •  50% of all English words have more than one meaning.
  • 75% of the most frequently used words in English are multiple meaning words. Many of these words function as both nouns and verbs (think there might be some confusion there???)
  • the meaning of more than 60% of English words can be inferred from roots and affixes
  • Words with only one meaning are termed “rare” words and usually are learned later in life
  • Students with language delays/disorders in middle-school often lack how to analysis words, roots, multiple word meanings, conjunctions, and embedded clauses.

The article of course, goes into much more detail for all of this information and I strongly suggest you check it out. 🙂

The next section of the article discusses intervention at the secondary level.  Essentially, there are 3 suggested vocabulary strategies.

1) Content Word Strings

Addresses comprehension and recall – two methods.

a) seek out two-word phrases that are found in content area vocab lists or at the conclusion of the chapter. SLPs should focus on two-word strings throughout the chapter to find those that are critical to comprehension but not listed in the vocab list selected by the author (or teacher). The SLP focuses on these word strings by using flashcards and playing matching, concentration, or go-fish type games.

b) use two- and three-word elaborated noun phrases so the content-specific words are in familiar context. Elaborated noun phrases include the two or more adjectives before the noun (e.g., small, green apples; 80 broken, florescent, light poles). The example provides shows a table with the vocabulary terms and the added modifiers. The SLP would choose common descriptors to make the task more appropriate. So, an example: “Immigrant – young, excited immigrant” and “policy – culturally sensitive, skillfully crafted policy” or “calcification – slow calcification.”  [personal aside: this seems really arduous. I’d love to hear from those of you working with adolescents regularly if this is something you do.]

2) Analyze Expository Text Structures

First, the SLP must determine the differences between narrative and expository text. Then point out the differences to the students and ask them to expand on them. The article states students’ comprehension is enhanced as they start to recognize and identify the features within it.

The article states the SLP would start with two books at a 3rd of 4th grade level – one narrative, one expository at about the same level. The student looks over and reads the story book silently, then the SLP asks several questions and creates a table with the answers. After reading the story book and answering the questions, the students read the expository book and answers the same questions [note: avoid biographies or autobiographies as these will have genre elements which will confuse the chart]. When the chart is completed, the students should compare/contrast the answers to the questions. The SLP will point out the differences between the writing and types of text. The theory is that once a student understands the differences in the texts, the information text is no longer unfamiliar and they will find it easier to read in the future.

Example questions:

  • Who is the main character?
  • Where do the events take place?
  • When does it take place?
  • What is the problem to be solved?
  • Does it have any charts or graphs or a table of contents?
  • What verb tense is used?
  • What does it ask you to do?
  • What is the author’s purpose?
  • Does it have any headings? Are there labels or captions under the pictures?
  • Does it point out new vocabulary words? How?

Again, the article has a great chart that shows the answers as well as the questions. Here is an exerpt.

vocab artic capture

[Personally, this seems like it might be a bit intensive to start with, but would be a great way to help students understand why a text book just isn’t quite as much fun to read as a novel…although, in reality I guess most of the kids I see aren’t great readers anyway so they don’t enjoy reading a novel either.]

3) Read to Find Out

This strategy addresses when students are asked to read and have no idea what they’re supposed to be learning about. If they can learn to have questions in mind while they read, they learn to recognize the information they find while they’re reading. This method has six steps:

  • Use a textbook from the class – select a lesson/chapter they’re CURRENTLY working on
  • provide several small sticky flags in various colors to each student. Decide on 5-10 sentences in the chapter and write a short search question for each sentence or group of sentences.
  • Ask the students to read the specific page or lines silently. Tell them to “read to find out _______” and mark where they find the information with the colored flag. It’s important to note that the students are rewarded points for finding the information – not how fast they find it so they can read the sentences multiple times if need be. Accuracy is more important than speed.
  • Check the flag position and have a student who found the correct information answer the question.
  • Keep track of the score as harder questions should be worth more points. Increase the length of the passage gradually so that it goes from a sentence, to two-three sentences, to a paragraph, to a page.
  • To begin with ask for one fact, then two, increasing as the length increases.

Here’s an excerpt from the article again.

vocab artic capture 2

Discussion. The article discusses how important it is for adolescents to be directly taught not just the words that create vocabulary, but the value of vocabulary. If we select the appropriate words (multiple meaning words, antonyms, tier-two words, content specific rare-words) students can learn them in meaningful ways (meaning not the binge and purge that happens with vocabulary tests, and not waiting around for the right experiences).  This last paragraph was particularly enlightening to me..

“New vocabulary-acquisition methods in the classroom, in the therapy room, and in the collaboration between the two settings are anticipated. As Bromley (2007) warns, “Overuse of dictionary hunting, definition writing, or teacher explanation can turn students off learning new words and does not necessarily result in better comprehension or learning” (p. 536). Students who struggle with literate language learning are even more vulnerable. To make learning language a reachable goal, they need practitioners to assess them astutely, prepare meaningful goals, know how the English language works, and remain enthusiastic about how to intervene.” 

Wow…How true is that?

So…What are your favorite vocabulary techniques? Let me know…I’m always willing to try something new to make learning as interesting as possible.

Until then…Adventure on!


10 thoughts on “Vocabulary building with Adolescents

  1. Sounds like a great article! I love tier 2 words, and narrative vs expository texts, and read to find out but I haven’t heard of working on the content word strings. I might add root words and affixes to this list though maybe that’s captured in the discussion with tier 2 words. I do struggle with the thought of directly teaching vocab because that is a goal that could be never ending, so in my private practice (I don’t work with adolescents in my main job) I tend to do more consultation & programming with vocab goals.

    • Root words and affixes were discussed a bit and it’s definitely something that I work on. The article said over 60% of English words can be inferred from roots and affixes – we’d be remiss if we didn’t teach strategies for how to deal with those. Right now, that’s a lot of my focus with a couple of my adolescents. They need to know the roots and affixes – they are finding more and more words in their reading that use them. They’re astounded when they’re able to infer the meaning. It’s definitely better when it’s not a guessing game. 🙂

  2. Great post ,Mary. Judy Montgomery has an hour long course on vocabulary growth at the secondary level on SpeechPathology.com. I took it and highly recommend it.

    • That’s great Jen. I’ve taken the one from Speechpathology.com too and really liked it! Judy is incredibly funny in person too, I was pleased to be able to chat with her very briefly last year following a conference.

  3. My newest favorite vocabulary building technique is working on morphological awareness with my students. However, all of my Tier 2 vocabulary interventions are composed of the following components:
    I select approximately 10 embedded tier two vocabulary words from various thematic texts and then
    (1) teach individual vocabulary words directly to comprehend classroom-specific texts,
    (2) provide multiple exposures of vocabulary words in multiple contexts, (definitions, synonyms, antonyms, multiple meaning words, read it spell it write it in a sentence, etc)
    (3) restructure vocabulary tasks to clarify student response requirements
    (5) maximize multisensory intervention to maximize gains,
    (6) use multiple instructional methods for vocabulary learning including but unlimited to: spelling, morphological awareness, writing in sentences etc

  4. I have begun using Vikki Joffe’s “vocabulary Enrichment intervention Prog” and “Narrative intervention Prog” both great for secondary you can get them through speechmark publishers both fantastic resources I have adapted to use on 1:1 but aimed at group within schools (UK SLT). They teach the kids all aspects of vocab, word types, roots, prefix, suffix, synonyms, double meanings idioms etc and the different types of Narrative.

    • There’s not really a “list” because it depends a bit on the background of the student. For instance, in my rural farming community – I’d expect my students to know about farming, cattle, livestock, etc. as part of their tier 1 and tier 2 words…But they wouldn’t know the street/city vocab that someone in NYC would know – so those would be tier 3.

      According to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction), Tier 1 words are the most basic words: clock, baby, happy, etc. Tier 3 words are the words whose frequency of use is low and usually taught in the classroom: isotope, lathe, peninsula.

      “Tier 2 words are high-frequency words for mature language users: coincidence, absurb, industrious.”

      The book states: “One ‘test’ of whether a word meets the Tier 2 criterion of being a useful addition to students’ repertoires is to think about whether the students already have ways to express the concepts represented by the words. Would students be able to explain these words using words that are already well known to them? If that is the case, it suggests that the new words offer students more precise or mature ways of referring to ideas they already know about. ” It goes on to give an example:

      3rd and 4th grade students know:
      Known Tier 2
      Salesperson merchant
      have to required
      Take care of tend
      keep going maintain
      did performed
      lucky fortunate
      kind benevolent

      It’s important to look at:
      1) which words will make the most impact
      2) limit the words somewhat so they can learn them well – don’t bombard them with 10-20 words a day, rather pick 3-4 words and teach them thoroughly (synonyms, antonyms, etc.)
      3) choose words that can be worked with in multiple ways
      4) choose words that the students already have a basis for – but the words give better understanding

      I hope that helps. I’d love if others had suggestions too!

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