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Scaffolding Vocabulary Learning: Knowing a Word and Teaching New Words

by Naashia Mohamed |

Rizz. Zhuzh. Cromulent. Duskus. Wrongthink.

How familiar are you with these words? They are just a few examples from the hundreds of new words added to English dictionaries in the last few months. All languages are continually evolving, and the English language seems to do so at a faster pace than many others, with an ever expanding vocabulary.   

Vocabulary Is Central to Language

Vocabulary is central to understanding and expressing our ideas. It is considered to be one of the most important aspects of learning a language and is also the most consistently used marker of proficiency in education. Vocabulary knowledge influences the complexities and nuances of our thinking and affects our ability to communicate effectively. We continue to develop vocabulary over our lifespan. Words are learned largely in terms of how often we encounter them and how deeply we process them. Although we pick up new words implicitly through exposure, explicit vocabulary instruction can make vocabulary learning more effective as it can aid internal processing.

Help learners understand the different parts of a new word by breaking it up.

Requirements of Learning

According to vocabulary expert Paul Nation, the effectiveness of a learning activity depends on three things:

    1. The usefulness, clarity, and accuracy of what is focused on
    2. The quantity or amount of attention given to what is to be learned
    3. The quality of attention given

Students encounter new words in different ways. In deciding which words to focus on for explicit instruction, we need to consider what kind of words they are. High-frequency words, or words that occur frequently within written texts, and academic vocabulary (e.g., assess, discuss, analyse) need to be deliberately taught and studied.

Each curriculum area (e.g., science, history, sports) has its own technical vocabulary that is specific to that discipline. The meaning of the words between areas can vary. Consider, for example, how the word volume can mean the degree of loudness, the amount of substance, or a series of printed matter. When drawing attention to technical vocabulary, it is important therefore to make students aware of the varied meanings of the word.

Low-frequency words do not need to be explicitly taught. Instead, if we equip students with strategies to work out the meanings of words themselves, we can empower learners to build their vocabulary independently.

What Is Involved in Knowing a Word?

At a fundamental level, knowledge of a word is recognizing it in speech and writing. In other words, being able to identify its form. At a receptive level, this means knowing what the word sounds like and looks like. At a productive level, it means knowing how to pronounce and spell the word. Of course, there is more to knowing a word than recognizing its form.

When learning a word, we also need to understand its meaning, including its literal and associative meanings. Additionally, word knowledge is also linked to being able to use it appropriately in communication. This includes knowledge of its grammatical function, and relating it to its appropriate context.

What Can Teachers Do?

    • Engage in consciousness raising. Get learners actively engaged in exploring word meanings.
    • Create rich discussions. When learners have multiple opportunities to participate in conversation, it enables them to try out their newly learned words.
    • Encourage extensive reading. Expose learners to a large variety of interesting texts that they can read (or listen to).
    • Explore new words. During spoken and print-related activities, take pause from time to time to focus on new words and discuss their meaning and use.
    • Assess vocabulary growth. Gather continuous formative evidence about learners’ vocabulary learning, their strengths, their gaps, and provide guidance on bridging any gaps.
    • Deconstruct words into parts. Help learners understand the different parts of a new word by breaking it up into prefix, stem, and suffix. Once this becomes habitual, learners will apply the strategy implicitly to new words they encounter.
    • Revisit new vocabulary. Spend time regularly to revise words taught previously.
    • Draw attention to context clues. Help learners guess the meaning of words from context based on the function of the word in the sentence and the topic of the text.
    • Use multiple resources to explain meanings. Depending on the word and the age of your learners, they may benefit from the use of visuals, actions, definitions, and synonyms when discussing the meaning of a word. Do they know the word in their own language? Is the definition appropriate to their level?
    • Teach dictionary skills. Do your learners know where to look up a word, what information to seek, and how to utilize the information in a dictionary entry?

Questions for Reflection

    • What’s a new word you have learned recently?
    • How did you learn it?
    • How often do you use it?
    • What helps you to remember new words?

About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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