Teaching Vocabulary to Homeschool Students

The best way to teach vocabulary is in the context of something the students are reading. Also, it should be taught in a repetitive way, or what I prefer to call a “layered” way. In education “repetitive” shouldn’t be a bad thing – the real world is repetitive. We are exposed to the same things over and over again in life, and none of us learns all the lessons on the first go around. Can you imagine if we only got one chance to learn things in life? Instead, the world gives us endless chances.

Our brains learn much faster if information fits into a context we already understand. For example, imagine you are asked to learn the following sequence of letters: jshsj kfhgh siuutk d smna pw igbwncjl kjdsfhw. Memorizing that would take awhile, wouldn’t it? But what if you were asked to memorize these letters: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. You could probably recite the letters from the second sequence after reading through it just once, because you already know the nursery rhyme, and you just have to remember some simple spelling facts, which you also already know. The first sequence, on the other hand, doesn’t relate to anything else you are familiar with, except the alphabet. You have to rely on straight memorization without the aid of understanding. And that is a tough, not to mention boring, sort of learning.

Steps to Teaching Vocabulary So it Sticks

So how can you appeal to understanding while teaching vocabulary? How can students learn new words more quickly and retain them longer? Teaching vocabulary with the classics is the perfect combination. I do this by guiding students through these steps:

Step 1. Go over vocabulary words and definitions with the teacher in the context of short passages from the book.

Step 2. Memorize the definitions.

Step 3. Read the section of the book with the vocabulary.

Step 4. Spend some time discussing meaning with the teacher. The teacher gives background information about the book and gives instruction on major themes, anchoring specific passages in the larger work.

Books for my class Tour Through History
Books for my class Tour Through History | Source

An Example of Step 1 Using a Vocabulary List From To Kill a Mockingbird

This is an overview of how I would teach the vocabulary words for the novel To Kill a Mockingbird with the four step method above:

Step 1. Go over vocabulary words and definitions with the teacher in the context of short passages from the book. Before the students read Section 1 of To Kill a Mockingbird, print out the student version of the vocabulary passages from the novel’s eBook.

Teaching vocabulary in longer passages gives students an opportunity to hone skills by figuring out unfamiliar words in context. Contextual clues teach us most of our vocabulary in the real world; few people stop reading to look up a word. Instead we hear or read words over and over in slightly different contexts, until we have a good understanding of the meaning and maybe even the nuances of that word. This is why avid readers end up with large vocabularies. They don’t necessarily use dictionaries more than the rest of us. They just expose themselves to more words in context, and eventually the clues come together and meaning soaks in.

This method of teaching vocabulary in the context of classic novels mimics the way we naturally learn new words, but gives it a little extra boost.

The first passage from my first To Kill a Mockingbird vocabulary list looks like this:

“So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens.

1) dictum (noun) a statement about a principle or opinion

2) chattel (noun) personal property, often slaves. The term is not used for land.

I ask the students to cover the definitions, and I read the passage aloud. In this case, “chattel” is the easier word to identify using the information in the rest of the passage than “dictum,” and I like to start with the word that is easiest in terms of contextual clues. That way, a passage with several vocabulary words quickly begins to make more sense.

The goal is for students to figure out the definitions of as many words as possible from contextual clues. Everyone remembers the answer to a puzzle they solve themselves better than one where they are told the answer.

I ask the students what they think “chattel” means. The clue in the sentence is the mention of slaves. Some students pick this up immediately, and others don’t. If they need prompting, I might say something like, “There is a clue in the sentence. Do you see another word that probably means the same thing as chattel? Look at how the sentence is structured.” Questions like this push students to apply strategies that most of us apply when reading, often without even thinking about it. Becoming aware of the strategies we are already using builds even stronger skills.

Three basic strategies cover most contextual clues:

  • Look for a word that is similar in meaning
  • Look for a word that is opposite in meaning
  • Look for a definition you can figure out logically

Now move onto the next word in the passage, “dictum.”

“So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens.

The sentence has no synonym or antonym for “dictum.” It just has to be figured out logically from clues in the sentence. Some students do this very organically, making logical jumps seemingly without effort. Others need to be walked through the clues. Every situation of working out a definition with logic will be different. There seems to be something to working closely with the teacher that builds this type of contextual skill. First, ask, “What do you think dictum means?” The student may get the definition, or reasonably close to it, right away. Sometimes students do have an inkling of the word’s meaning, but are hesitant to commit in case they are too far off. I always encourage informed guessing. This is how this kind of skill is built.

To give more guidance, I might ask, “What clues do you see in the sentence to help figure out the meaning of dictum?” The clues are things like a dictum being something a teacher would have, and this particular dictum being about owning slaves. We see from the sentence that Simon forgetting his teacher’s dictum about slaves resulted in him buying three slaves. Looking at this logically, a student may piece together that a dictum is some sort of rule or opinion. Encourage students to make educated guesses, and then give further guidance. Saying things like, “You are on the right track,” or “Given the context that is a good guess, but in this case it isn’t right” will help them along.

Working out a vocabulary word this way is like solving a puzzle. The more students practice, the better and quicker they will be when coming across an unfamiliar word in anything they read or hear. In some cases you will have to simply give the definition because context clues are too vague, although students often surprise me by correctly guessing the meaning of a word with minimal clues. Working through vocabulary lists like this several times in the course of teaching a novel takes time, but is worth it in developing lifelong analytical skills and habits of thought.

Step 2: Memorization

Step 2. Memorize the definitions. Learning is always easier with context, so they can work on memorizing straight from their vocabulary sheets to take advantage of the original passages where the words are found. Everyone memorizes differently, and some students do best with flash cards. There are even mobile phone applications for teaching vocabulary. Vocabulary words can be entered, and students can quiz themselves using their phones, or pass the phone to a friend or sibling for a quick quiz.

Two concepts matter with memorization: spaced learning and retrieval.

Spaced learning means that all other things being equal, student A, who studies in many short sessions, will learn more vocabulary words than student B, who studies in one marathon session, even if both A and B spend the exact same amount of time studying. This is not an opinion; it is consistently backed up by the research of scientists like Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules. Our brains take in vast amounts of information constantly, and only a fraction of it is permanently stored. The brain remembers more effectively the more often a piece of information is repeated, and best if the repeating is done in cycles. What is the ideal space of time between regular study sessions? According to Dr Medina, research is inconclusive at this point.

Personally, I recommend studying vocabulary every day. Most people find that doing something every day is actually easier than making themselves do it three times a week. Whether or not today is a vocabulary day is never in question: today is always a vocabulary day. Students who study their definitions (or anything else for that matter) every single day will have the very best chance of remembering, and will need the least total amount of study time.

Retrieval means being able to bring information to mind when you want it. The student who can tell you a definition when asked, or write it on a quiz, is reliably retrieving vocabulary. After spaced learning, the next important issue in retrieving vocabulary definitions is how students study. A common mistake students make is to study by exposing themselves to the information over and over. This sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? For example, a student might study vocabulary words by reading over the sentences and definitions on the vocabulary sheet for ten minutes every night. Students who study this way are confident they know the information; by the end of the week the words and definitions seem so familiar. But then during the quiz, the student can only retrieve half of the definitions. The time invested in studying isn’t the problem; the method is. Unfortunately, many students get frustrated at this point, and think they are no good at memorization. After all, they worked on those words every day!

With just a little extra guidance about study habits, and some understanding of the concept of retrieval, the same student spending the same amount of time can remember all or nearly all of the definitions next week.

Realize that the brain, just like the body, becomes good at what it practices over and over. Students need to not just recognize the word and definition, but retrieve the definition when they see only the word. So they must practice this exact skill. Flash cards work, as long as they are used correctly. Students should look at the side of the card with the vocabulary word, and try to remember the definition without looking. They shouldn’t give up too quickly, or look at the word and then immediately flip the card over to read the definition without putting some effort into retrieval. If students look at the word, try to retrieve the definition but can’t after a few seconds, at that point they should flip the card over and read the definition. But then immediately they need to practice retrieval by looking at only the word, and saying the definition. Requiring the brain to not just recognize something familiar, but retrieve specific information when given a cue, builds an important skill. Regular work with vocabulary lists does more than just teach new words; more importantly, it trains the brain to learn.

Some practical issues in memory work Finding time for memory work is a big part of the battle. Time spent in the car is great for memorizing bits of information; keeping a set of flash cards or a vocabulary sheet in the back seat works well for this. If the first ten minutes of any car trip is spent on memorization, over a week that time adds up. Right before bed, or when settling down at the end of the day, can be another time that works well. The trick is to find a regular time in the schedule and form a habit of practicing vocabulary during that time. Also, the vocabulary sheet or flash cards need to be available in that time and space, whether this means keeping them on the bedside table or in the car. Needing to find the study aids before every session makes skipping sessions much more likely.


Step 3: Read the Book

Step 3. Read the section of the book with the vocabulary. So now the students have received the vocabulary words with definitions and parts of speech, and have memorized them. The next step is reading the assigned section of the novel. This step shifts to a holistic approach to vocabulary building. Students aren’t thinking about words and definitions; they just get involved with a great story. In the process, they build a context for those memorized definitions, and add another layer to their understanding.

Step 4: Discuss

Step 4. Spend some time discussing meaning with the teacher. The teacher gives background information about the book and gives instruction on major themes, anchoring specific passages in the larger work. Understanding larger themes in many cases ties directly into vocabulary words, and the passage used above is an excellent example. While on the surface the narrator seems to simply recite a bit of the history of her Southern family, this short passage hints at major themes of the book: race, class and justice.

“So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens.

To discuss meaning with students the teacher can ask an open ended question like, “What do we learn about the American South from the passage?” Or the teacher might get more specific, and say, “This is Scout talking about her family. What stands out to you? How is this different from how you might talk about your family?” One answer is that Scout can recite a detailed history of her family starting several generations back, and relate this history to people and places she is familiar with. Few 21st century students know much about their great grandparents’ lives, and very few still live in the same geographical area where their ancestors established a family home. Even more importantly, this sort of family history, even if it is known, is rarely relevant to the student’s everyday life. In contrast, Scout’s family history is known not just to her, but to the community, and she and her family still enjoy the respect of being descendants of a landowner.

The above quote does more than just set the scene: it ties into race relations, and particularly the issues surrounding Tom Robinson’s trial. The wealth and social position of Scout’s family result directly from slavery, and from the willingness of Simon Finch to go against the teaching of his Methodist mentor and become a slave owner. Scout’s father Atticus will serve as defense lawyer for a Black man accused of raping a White woman, and in doing so defies not only social norms but also family history.

This short passage says a great deal about the larger themes of the book.

Approaching vocabulary this way integrates learning new words with learning about the book as a whole, and gives the best chance for permanent gains in vocabulary.

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