Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Vocabulary Building Ideas for Reluctant Readers

As I’ve written about before, (see Tips for Encouraging Reluctant Readers), readers often run into difficulties when they aren’t familiar with the vocabulary used. They may be able to decode the words (sound them out) but they don’t know what the word means. For example, a struggling reader may be able to decode the following sentence:
Jennifer composed a note covertly.
But if the reader is unfamiliar with the words composed and covertly, he won’t realize that all it was saying was:
Jennifer wrote a note secretly.

Running into unfamiliar words occasionally is a good thing – it’s what helps us grow as readers. Running into them repeatedly makes us want to just set the book down…permanently.
The two most powerful ways to increase vocabulary are conversation and reading. When you and your child have conversations, don’t be afraid to ask her what a word means. Lots of kids’ slang is a mystery to us adults. Or maybe there’s a school vocabulary word you’ve never heard before. By modeling this asking behavior, your child may be more willing to ask when she doesn’t know a word.
TV can also give us opportunities to learn new words. Make a point of looking up an unknown word you hear on TV. Maybe everyone can make guesses before you look it up and see who’s closest.
Reading, of course, can give a huge boost to vocabulary. This is when read alouds are especially powerful. Struggling readers seldom learn new vocabulary when they read because so much of their efforts go into the actual work of decoding the words and making sense of the sentences. This is not a good time to ask your child to stop and look up words. It will most likely make a difficult task harder.
Reading Rockets ( is a powerful website with wonderful suggestions for all aspects of reading. Here is a list of some of their suggestions for vocabulary development with a few of my ideas.
1.   Have structure and organization behind the words you present
Present words in related groups. Try making posters of the words. A thesaurus is a wonderful resource for this. Examples:
  • Feeling words [afraid – anxious, terrified, worried…]
  • Movement words [walk – stride, tiptoe, glide…]
2.   Incorporate multisensory learning from the beginning
This is where games come in. I like to modify existing games for vocabulary development. For these 2 games, create a list of target words (school vocabulary, fun words, whatever you like) and post them for everyone to see .
  • Pictionary Whoever is it chooses a word from the list and starts drawing (on paper, white board, chalkboard). The other players can guess at any time but can guess only one time until everyone has a chance to guess. If there’s still no right answer, players can guess again. Once someone guesses correctly, both the drawer and the guesser get a point.
  • Charades Same rules as in Pictionary, except you act the word out instead of drawing it.
3.   Model the activities first
Whenever we ask kids to do something confusing and/or embarrassing, we need to first model doing it ourselves .
Also, make sure you alternate the student/teacher roles as often as possible. Here’s an activity that uses this role alternation.
Vocabulary Bingo
  • This works best with more than 2 players. Collect words to learn/reinforce (school vocabulary, fun words, whatever you like), plus their definitions (ex. agrarian: having to do with farming or rural life) or sentences that include them (ex. A farming community is an ______ community. [agrarian])
  • Write the words in random order on bingo sheets (paper marked into grids of 9 or 25 squares).
  • Write the words and their definitions (or fill-in-the-blank sentences) on index cards.
  • Take turns being the caller. The caller reads the definition; the others mark the words on their bingo cards.
  • The first one to get a vertical, horizontal or diagonal line of markers wins. Markers can be squares of paper, buttons, coins, whatever.
4.   Most work with vocabulary should be done with the meanings available
5.   Keep an ongoing list prominently posted.
6.   Go beyond the definitions of the words
Try making books, collages or posters of words that have multiple meanings with illustrations.
There are lots more games and activities. I’ll include more in later posts but these are a good place to start.
This is a very cool website and one I’ve been playing for years. It’s a vocabulary quiz in which you answer questions to earn rice for the World Food Programme. The beauty of it is, as you answer questions, it senses what difficulty level the next word should be, so there’s less chance for frustration. Give it a try!
What vocabulary ideas do you have? Share them with us!

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