Boosting vocabulary: Tips for Tutors

Posted by on December 16, 2005

[posted from K-12 service-learning listserv]

Do the students you work with ever say, “I just don’t get it?” Often, their confusion indicates low understanding of key vocabulary words in their reading or homework. Share the following information with volunteers, tutors, and mentors to help them support vocabulary development in children and youth.

Vocabulary size (the number of words a student knows, understands, and can use) plays an important role in reading ability and is cited by the National Reading Panel as one of the five key components of reading instruction. When you discover your student struggles with specific words, what can you do?

Useful General Strategies
First, work with the student to speculate on the word’s meaning based on the context (sentence or paragraph) and root words; this activity builds important skills for independent reading. Ask questions like: “Can you think of another word that would make sense here? Are there any parts of this word that you know the meaning of? Based on what we’ve read so far, what do you think the word might mean?” Make notes about the student’s response.

Next, help the student find the word’s definition in an age-appropriate dictionary; this activity helps students find word meanings on their own. If the word has more than one meaning, read all definitions and work together to choose the best one. Compare the dictionary meaning with the student’s own ideas, noting the differences in a positive way – “You did some good thinking before we looked up this word, and one definition is very close to what you said.” Make cards or lists noting the words and definitions you investigate.

Finally, using the cards or lists for reminders, model ways that you use the new vocabulary words, and help the child use them at regular intervals over the next few weeks. Research shows that students retain new vocabulary best when words are personalized and used repeatedly in many different contexts.

Vocabulary Activities
Word cards, made from index cards, can accumulate into a prized collection as a child learns many new words. The tutor can use word cards as a reference for word review. For a description of how to make word cards and a template, go to:

Word trees are useful in helping children identify or map families of words that share the same root, e.g., the root word “port” in transport, report, portable, etc. For a description of how to make word trees and a template, go to:

Word sorts help children create conceptual models for words that appear in the same context but have different meanings, e.g., words about music — guitar, melody, notes, lyrics, singer, chords, and strum. For a description of how to do word sorts and an example, go to:

The more children read, the more vocabulary they will gain. Target only the most important vocabulary words for these activities, as a break from reading, without taking too much time away from the important main activity — reading itself.

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