A cursory read of the Common Core Reading Anchor Standards indicates that one of the most important aspects of college and career readiness is a mature vocabulary. Vocabulary is addressed not only in the reading anchors, but also in the language anchor standards. Reading anchor #4 states that students should be able to interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text which implies that they have expertise in deriving meaning from context (CCSS, 2010, p. 10, 35 & 60) while the language anchor #4 explicitly states students should be able to determine or clarify the meaning of unknown words and multiple meaning words and phrases by using context clues” (CCSS, 2010, p. 25 & 52). Grade level language standard 4 digs even deeper into word knowledge by providing guidelines for the instruction of specific Latin and Greek affixes and roots at each grade level.
The importance of vocabulary is further supported in Appendix A which focuses on the importance of building Tier 2 vocabulary strength. Citing the work of Isabel Beck, Appendix A defines the three tiers of vocabulary, noting that Tier 3 words are content specific and obviously unknown to students; therefore, Tier 3 words (e.g. photosynthesis, metonymy, ions, tectonic plates, jurisprudence, etc.) are taught by teachers as part of content discipline instruction. However, often overlooked are Tier 2 words, those mature multisyllabic words found in complex text.
Here’s the twist. Most educators THINK they teach students how to use context clues in defining or clarifying word meaning in context. But the fact is, they merely mouth the words: “use the context clues to help you understand what the word means.” They provide no specific strategies for identifying context clues…probably because they have never had anyone explicitly model the practice for them. Here’s a research based strategy I share in my workshops to support Standard 4 in both the language and reading anchors.
The first step is to teach a connotation lesson. Isabel Beck, Donald Graves and others are clear on the point that readers are often attuned to the connotation of a word in context even before deriving specific meaning. As you will see, connotation becomes part of the lesson that I am unfolding here.
I use these three words to teach connotation: chair, throne, and stool. I begin by writing the words on the board and showing the symbols =, – , 0. I explain that words often have a connotation: positive, negative, and neutral. Then I say, “The word throne is generally positive because it implies wealth and power.” I ask what other positive associations are made with the word. Then I move to stool, “If throne is positive, what is stool and why…” and so on. Remember, the CCSS value reasoning over a correct answer, so allow time for your students to fully justify their reasoning and don’t rush ahead because you hear them say what you want to hear.
I provide the organizer you see below the day before the vocabulary lesson. You can see it is a simple checklist to be used as a preassessment. If the student doesn’t know the word, they simply put a check in that column and move to the next word. If they know the word, they move across the row putting checks in the appropriate columns. IF they know the word, they provide a definition, that way as a teacher, you see what they THINK the word means and you can decide whether they “know” the word.
Click here to access the entire slide set in PDF: Teaching Tier 2 Vocabulary using Context Clues
You collect the pre-assessment (so with SMART goals, you have a baseline for measurement). The second organizer is for instruction and group practice. Because reading research indicates that most Tier 2 words do not have strong context clues associated within authentic text–Block and Mangieri have determined at best 61% of unknown words can be determined through contextual analysis while Nagy, et al. estimate as few as 5-15% of unknown words can be determined through contextual analysis–as the teacher you will need to create sentences that provide that missing context. Of course, if the text you are using does that already (and statistically speaking, it will), just lift those sentences.
The next step is to model for kids the six means by which context is provided (see slide 2). Using a think aloud, work through a few and then put students into groups to analyze the remaining words and context. I am sharing here the list I use in my workshops to practice the application. If you would like the blank organizers, drop me a note and I’ll send them to you. Just remember, the student needs to state which context clue or clues they used to figure out the definition and how they did that. Again, that is very Common Core…the explanation is equal in value to the right answer. We and they need to know how to think.
As usually, my blog is long and cumbersome, but teaching and learning is complex. The art of the teacher is the ability to parse the steps into manageable risers that move learners up the staircase or ladder of learning. Hope you find this of some help…and please, share your stories with me.