Learning vocabulary

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I've just finished (phew!) the parent cheat sheets for all my workbooks. These tell you which word matches each picture, and provide an example sentence illustrating the word's meaning and grammatical function, in case you can't think up a better one yourself.

The cheat sheets now download for free from this site's shop with each workbook (you can look through them all on YouTube here). If you already have a workbook or workbooks and want me to send you the relevant parent cheat sheet(s), just email me.

Having to make up illustrative sentences for all the hundreds of words in the workbooks has really made me think about the books' value in teaching word meaning and use, i.e. vocabulary and grammar, as well as teaching word structure in a systematic way.

Learning vocabulary

Learning all about a new word is a process not an event. Little kids often learn the words "dog" and "duck" fairly early, but at first they call anything with four legs "dog", and all birds "duck".

Actually they tend to start off saying "dod" and "dut", but since they're also pointing/looking at an animal or bird, we see what they mean.

After a while, they learn "cat" and "budgie" and "chicken" and "cow", so start narrowing down their idea of what "dog" and "duck" mean, as well as getting their heads and little mouths around the correct sounds.

We don't sit little children down and tell them: "A dog is a widely-domesticated canine quadruped", or "the word 'dog' is a noun with a word-final voiced velar stop sound". We just hang around with them and talk about dogs when the subject comes up, till they've heard the word enough times to understand what "dog" does and doesn't mean, how to use it in a sentence, and what its correct sounds are.

Over time they learn about Great Danes and chihuahuas, wild, working and pet dogs, and that a dog doesn't stop being a dog even if it loses its tail or a leg. Eventually they have more or less the same idea about the word "dog" as the rest of us.

Dogs are fairly common, so they tend to come up in conversation with kids. But whether you'll learn about iguanas or antelopes or walruses really depends on whether you find out they exist, by doing things like going to the zoo, watching documentaries or reading about wildlife and the natural world.

If you can't yet read, the latter isn't really an option. While other kids can independently dive into books and extract knowledge about puffins and bandicoots, you can look at the pictures but not access the words independently, so you start to fall behind on vocabulary too.

Of course, if your family can't afford to go to the zoo, you watch only cartoons and nobody reads to you, your opportunities to meet things like iguanas, antelope and walruses are even further restricted. You might only meet some of them in Speech Therapy, because there's a picture in your phonics workbook that you ask about, leading to a discussion and looking up more pictures on your Speech Pathologist's dog-eared old iPad.

Learning grammar

I'm not a big fan of teaching grammar using rules for the same reason I'm not keen on spelling rules – the language of rules is often far too difficult for my learners.

Consider the following grammar rule:

"A weak clause begins with words such as although, since, if, when, and because. Weak clauses cannot stand on their own".

Stop and think about what that rule means, and don't read on till you have.

Now have a look at some example weak clauses:

Although she is hungry…
If she is hungry…
Since I am feeling well…

It's only when you consider examples that you really understand what rules like this really mean. So I'd rather just cut straight to giving lots of examples than fluff around trying to explain how to use language using language.

Words like "iguana" tend to have a single meaning and are used in a single sentence slot (the noun slot), but many words can be used to mean more than one thing, and go in more than one grammatical slot.

Take, for example, the word "focus", for which sentences might include:

  • "I deleted the out-of-focus photo"
  • "This music is too loud, and I can't focus on my homework" and
  • "The focus of today's lesson is estimating speed".

These illustrate rather than explaining that this word can be used in different grammatical slots in a sentence – adjective, verb and noun.

A picture paints a thousand words

Some phonics/spelling workbooks contain lots of words but not many pictures, because their main focus is word structure, not meaning or use.

My workbooks have a picture associated with each target word, because many of my learners also have spoken language difficulties, so I can't assume they know very much about word meaning. I say sentences containing each word as we work through the books, to make sure they have examples of how each word can be used.

Kids are endlessly curious about new vocabulary. My lets-focus-on-word-structure groups at school keep having to take vocabulary and word usage detours because some kid asks about the difference between a monkey and an ape, whether you can say "a chive" or just "chives", or whether the word "sty" applies to eyes as well as pigs.

Once you introduce a word kids haven't quite nailed down yet, they like to nail it – structure, function and meaning.

Vocabulary activities v/s spelling activities

As I wrote in a previous blog post, school "spelling lists" are often actually vocabulary lists, made up of words that are related by meaning, but not spelling.

Such lists don't teach much that is useful or generalisable about spelling, and can encourage learners in the mistaken belief that English spelling is impossibly complex.

A good spelling activity makes a useful point about spelling, whether it's the different ways to spell the sound "aw" (as in "law", "for", "more", "four", "bought", "caught" and so on), the different sounds of the spelling "or" (as in "for", "work", "tractor" and "forest") or particular spellings that come from particular languages, like the Latin "tion" in "action" and "motion", the Greek "ph" as in "phone" and "sphere" or the French "que" as in "boutique" and "oblique".

However, there are always opportunities during word structure/spelling activities to also learn about word meaning and use.

I hope the hundreds of sentences I've just made up for my parent cheat sheets, and the hundreds of pictures in my workbooks, help with learning vocabulary and grammar as well as spelling/reading.