By Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher
Although selecting words worthy of being taught is one of the hardest things about explicit vocabulary instruction, modeling is one of the most underutilized instructional routines for ensuring students’ progress in word knowledge and word solving. Modeling word solving strategies does not focus on specific words, but rather the skills of figuring out unknown words. It’s habit building and students need to develop this habit if they are going to apply what we have taught them on their own.
Our thinking about modeling word solving focuses on students learning to look inside words and outside words for clues about meaning.
And we say this to them all of the time, “Let’s look inside the word and outside the word to see what we know.” That’s what we hope that they start to say to themselves, over time, as they come to words they don’t know
In thinking about word solving, we have identified three categories worthy of attention during modeling: word parts, context clues, and resources (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2008). Of course, modeling word solving should be integrated with other attempts at understanding the text, such as comprehension strategies and using text structures and text features. We are not suggesting that teachers focus only on modeling word solving, but rather add word solving in their shared readings and think alouds so that students have access to examples of expert thinking about words. As we will see in the examples below, modeling requires the use of an “I statement” in which the teacher shares his or her thinking with others.
Looking Inside: Word Parts
When readers come to an unknown word, one of the things that they can do is look inside the word to see if there are any clues to the word’s meaning. Understanding morphology, including prefixes, suffixes, roots, bases, and cognates, helps the reader make an educated guess about an unknown word. For example, if the reader has never been exposed to the word paleozoology, she or he can make an educated guess about this field using knowledge about prefixes and suffixes. In fact, the word is fairly easy to figure out when you remember that paleo- means old or ancient, zoo relates to animals, and -ology relates to the study of something.
But simply providing students with a morphology list is not likely to change their behavior when they come to unknown words. Instead, teachers need to model the use of morphology in understanding words. For example, while reading a sentence that contained the word heterozygous, the biology teacher modeled his use of morphology saying, “I know that hetero means different, so this must be the one that has two different alleles, or different versions, of a specific gene.”
Of course, morphology does not always work and students should be provided with examples that remind them to check other clues as well. Our favorite example of this occurred in an English as a Second Language classroom when the teacher got to the word repeat. She said, “I got this one. I know that re- means to do again. So I’m going to peat again. Wait, I have no idea what that means! I better check the context clues and look outside the word to see if I can figure this out.”
Looking Outside: Context Clues
In addition to looking inside words, students have to be taught to look outside of words to figure out their meaning. This happens through an understanding of context clues. Although context clues are not infallible, they can be helpful. There are a number of different kinds of context clues, such as embedded synonyms, antonyms, direct definitions, and the use of punctuation. Again, students need to be taught how to use these tools. Modeling provides students examples that can be built into habits.
- Science: TSD: The Science Dictionary
- History: Babylon.com: History Dictionary
- Mathematics: A Maths Dictionary for Kids
- Art: Artlex Art Dictionary
- Sports and fitness: Babylon.com: Sports Dictionary
As with word parts and context clues, teachers should model their use of resources such as these as well as the appropriate ways to ask other people. This can be as simple as calling a friend on the classroom phone or texting someone for more information.
Modeling is an important part of explicit vocabulary instruction, but it is not sufficient in and of itself to ensure that students learn words deeply. In addition to modeling, students need intentional instruction and multiple opportunities to practice the words they are learning.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2008). In a reading state of mind: Brain research, teacher modeling, and comprehension instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Reprinted with permission of the author. First published on Vocabulogic at vocablog-plc.blogspot.com.
About Fisher and Frey
This article is courtesy of Drs. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Doug and Nancy are professors at San Diego State University and nationally known for their work with vocabulary and comprehension instruction. They are the co-authors of several professional books for educators, including Word Wise and Content Rich: Five Essential Steps to Teaching Academic Vocabulary. Key ideas from their book are discussed in this article.