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Make Sure you Know Which Words to Teach When Improving Comprehension

With 70 per cent of English words having multiple meanings, it pays to dig deeper into definitions when boosting children’s reading comprehension, says Nikki Gamble…

  • Make Sure you Know Which Words to Teach When Improving Comprehension

Reading the poem ‘Maggie Dooley’, about an old woman who feeds stray cats in the park each day, with her Year 4 class, Mrs Wright wasn’t expecting the words to cause much difficulty. But it quickly becomes apparent that the word ‘family’ is proving to be a barrier to understanding. The children can’t get past the idea that it must refer to Maggie’s own children.

She sits by the children’s
And takes a sip
From a bottle of stout.
She smiles a smile
And nods her head
Until her little
Family’s fed.

Mrs Wright guides the group to think about how pets might be considered ‘part of the family’, but the class can’t seem to get past a literal interpretation of the word – ‘family’ means ‘relatives’.

Your schema of any given word is constructed by your prior knowledge and understanding of it, and all of us make these connections when we read. Children’s knowledge, however, is limited by their experience. So, while ‘family’ is a word you would expect Year 4 pupils to know and understand, their experience of its various uses is modest.

Which words when?

So, when it comes to teaching vocabulary to enhance children’s reading comprehension, how do you know which words to teach, and what are the best ways of teaching them? This is the investigative task put forward to teachers taking part in the 4XR project in Richmond.

One factor was choosing breadth or depth, and while both are useful in reading comprehension, Oulette (2006) argues that a deeplevel knowledge has a greater impact than superficially knowing a greater number of words. Another helpful approach, which is designed to help teachers make these choices, comes from Isabel Beck et al (2002), who categorised words into three tiers:

  • Tier 1 is basic words that appear in most children’s vocabulary.
  • Tier 2 is frequently occurring words that are central to comprehension, and are understood by most language users.
  • Tier 3 is low-frequency specialised words that may appear in specific fields or content areas (such as science or social studies).

The significance of Beck’s classification is that it introduces the idea of usefulness. Selecting words for deep language instruction takes into account the utility of the words rather than a word’s complexity or lack of familiarity. Each tier requires different teaching approaches, but Tier 2 words are perhaps the most useful to expanding KS2 children’s reading comprehension – in part because it helps to teach pupils words they already partially understand.

Which words and why?

When reading Sonya Hartnett’s The Children of the King with his class, Mr Miller selected a small number of words to use as the basis of his vocabulary teaching each week. Here are two examples of his thought process:

1 | ‘Quailed’

Sentence: She heard it: footsteps in the dark. Cecily Lockwood, aged recently twelve quailed in the darkness beneath her bed and listened to the steps coming closer.

Vocabulary commentary: The word ‘quailed’ is unlikely to be familiar to most students. However, the general mood and tone can be understood from the context without knowing precisely what this word means. It is a Tier 2 word, but it has limited use and is more usual in older texts.

Teaching decision: Give a definition for ‘quailed’ during reading.

2 | ‘Drawn’, ‘ribbon’, ‘nosed’

Sentence: The curtains of her bedroom were drawn and only a ribbon of light nosed past the door.

Vocabulary commentary: ‘Drawn’ has more than one meaning. It’s likely that students will know ‘to sketch’ and the verb ‘to draw the curtains’. It can also mean ‘pale and haggard’, ‘to pull something out of a pocket’ (eg to draw a pistol) or ‘to shrink’. Drawn is a good Tier 2 word.

‘Ribbon’ may be familiar as a strip of material, but is less likely to be known in a more generalised context, eg a long, narrow strip – as in vegetables cut into ribbons, or metaphorically as a ribbon of light. Ribbon is also a good Tier 2 word.

While students will know the noun ‘nose’, the use of ‘nosed’ in this context is more likely to be found in literary texts and may be confusing to some readers.

Teaching decision: There is no need to take any action with the word ‘ribbon’ (teaching more than five words in depth is counter productive, so you have to weigh up the relative merits of teaching each word). Drawn or nosed could be selected as words to teach after reading.

Mapped out

Another way to increase reading comprehension is semantic mapping – a graphic strategy that establishes the schematic relationship between words and enables students to develop a deeper understanding of concepts. Children can activate and organise their prior knowledge, and are guided to structure that knowledge into formal relationships. All concepts have at least three different types of association:

  • Association of class: The order of things. So within the class ‘family’, we might include mother, father, brother, sister etc.
  • Association of property: These are the attributes that define the concept – so for ‘family’ these might include home, security, belonging.
  • Associations of example: The Royal family, my family, a pride of lions.

Semantic maps are created together by the teacher and students through dialogue, making the different types of association between groups of words explicit. Used to develop a deep understanding of Tier 2 vocabulary, they are working documents, with pupils adding new ideas as they progress through a sequence of work. Going back to Mrs Wright’s class, the key question is, ‘How has your understanding of the word ‘family’ changed since reading the poem?’. Here’s the process step by step:

  • Before reading ‘Maggie Dooley’, Mrs Wright writes ‘family’ on the IWB and asks pupils to suggest words they associate with it, before adding them to the board.
  • She makes a couple of suggestions designed to encourage the students to think more broadly. After one child says ‘love’, she adds ‘jealousy’, which sparks suggestions of negative emotional words.
  • Some words and phrases suggested by the class were: mum, love, jealousy, protected, visiting, brother, belonging, dad, games, fight, safe, feeding, ancestor, heirloom, granny, football, animal kingdom, secure, take care, family tree, uncle, grandma, holidays, home, happy, look after, fighting, meals.
  • Mrs Wright reviews the list with pupils and asks them to suggest links between words. These word groups include relatives (mum, dad, granny, grandma, uncle) and feeling safe (protected, safe, secure, happy, take care, look after).
  • Mrs Wright models how to group these words using a semantic map, explaining that words can fit in more than one group. In threes or fours, students complete their semantic maps and feed back to the class.
  • In pairs, pupils review their semantic maps and decide which aspects of the word ‘family’ Charles Causley was implying in ‘Maggie Dooley’. They highlight key words and phrases (evidence) in the poem.

Word building

Three more ideas for working with tier 2 words.

  • After creating your semantic map, generate one by typing ‘family’ into lexipedia.com. Ask pupils to review their own maps and annotate them.
  • Use Pinterest boards or visual word walls to build up word meanings.
  • Try forced association – juxtapose two seemingly unconnected target words and ask the pupils a question, eg for ‘family’ and ‘stray’, ask ‘Can you have a stray family?’ or ‘Can a family stray?’.

Nikki Gamble is Associate Consultant at UCL and Director of Just Imagine. For further information about the 4XR Project contact nikki@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk.

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