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3 Ways to Deal With Vocabulary in Your Novel Unit

Posted by Mary B Collins on Oct 11th 2016

3 Ways to Deal With Vocabulary in Your Novel Unit

It's October now--time for Halloween and spooky stories. A great time to teach the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. But, sadly, many students won't be reading Poe this October. Why not? Because Poe's vocabulary is just too much to tackle for some classes. And that's a real shame because those students are missing out on some pretty awesome, image-rich storytelling. What can you do to help your students make their way through stories written with vocabulary words that are beyond their comfort range? Here are a few ways you can deal with challenging vocabulary in your novel unit study:

1. Study The Words First

Before you even announce that you'll be studying a particular book, pull out the words you think your students will have the most trouble with--words that are important to the understanding of the story--and play with them for a few days.

Give students the words and definitions. Let them use a "cheat sheet" to figure out appropriate answers to games, worksheets, or activities you devise. When I say "play with the words," I mean that literally. There are dozens of vocabulary activities you can do. Here are some:

Put each word on a piece of paper. Put each definition on a piece of paper. Give each student one word or one definition (more if you have a small class). Invite a student to stick her paper on the bulletin board or wall. The student with the matching word (or definition) then goes and posts his paper. Another students posts his paper, and the student with the corresponding paper then posts hers. And so on. Just get them up out of their seats and moving, literally working with the words.

Give each student a word on a card. Start with any student and have that student start a story using her word. The next student adds to the story using his word, and so on until all the words are used and the story is complete. Students with the last words need to wrap up the story and create an ending.

Go to the gym or outside basketball court. Have students form 2 lines. State a word and ask the first student in team 1 for the definition. If he gets it correct, he gets to shoot a basket. If he gets it wrong, the same word goes to the first student in team 2.  When a student gets the correct answer, he/she gets one chance to shoot a basket. Keep score. The team with the most baskets wins. You might announce this contest on the day before and suggest students should study the words as homework to give themselves more chances at shooting the basket.  You could also do this in the classroom with wads of paper and a trash can instead of a basketball.

Have students do an Internet search for some image that is related to their assigned words. Have them each send you a jpg file make a quick little PowerPoint presentation with each image on a separate slide. Show the slides and have students guess the vocabulary word it represents.

Give extra credit points (or keep score in a game for some prize) each time a student uses one of the vocabulary words correctly in class or in writing assignments.

Have student create a cheerleading cheer for each of the vocabulary words and let them perform their cheers.

I'm old enough to remember writing each vocabulary word ten times as spelling homework--and that activity worked for me for spelling. Mom or my sister would quiz me on the definitions, and that helped with the vocabulary part. Those things still work for some students, too. There's nothing wrong with those "old fashioned" study methods. Pair students to quiz each other. Use writing the words multiple times as a one-minute warm-up as class gets in and settled or while you take roll. Do one vocabulary word each day as a warm-up.

There are lots of different things you can do that don't take a lot of time to prepare but give students an active role in using and working with the words

When students meet these vocabulary words in the text, they and the words will be old friends--and their reading comprehension will be better.

2. Act It Out

An unfamiliar word on a page doesn't mean anything. It's a depressing stumbling block. It's a turn-off to the story. Looking up words you don't know in a glossary or dictionary is an essential skill to have, but it isn't always the best way to grasp the meaning of certain words.

One way to energize students' reading is to get them to act out some scenes--even for just a sentence or two--to see the troublesome vocabulary word(s) in action. Saying someone is "melancholy" is one thing...but seeing someone being melancholy is more memorable. Tell students what "melancholy" means--get someone to play the character who is melancholy. Act it out. This works for all kinds of words, especially adjectives and verbs--but others as well.

Get your students to feel, to see, to engage with the word(s). 

Naturally, you have to have common sense when doing these kinds of activities. If the word is "pulverize" and one character is pulverizing another in a boxing match, that may not be the best word to literally do this activity with! :-)

3. Audiobooks

Audiobooks have a place in the classroom. With my lowest level classes, I used to read the first part of the story to the students, to try to get them into the book and interested enough to continue reading. Of course the year I had 5 sections of American Lit and read the beginning of Huck Finn 5 times, I had no voice by the end of the day! 

Audiobooks often (not always) model good reading. They at very least help students hear the pronunciation of unfamiliar words, and depending on how the encompassing sentences are read, students can often get a sense of the words' meanings.  

Huck Finn was challenging because of the dialect. Students had a really hard time reading it, but when they listened to it and saw the words go by on the page, they "got it" better. Dialect is sort-of a thing unto itself. All their lives students are taught proper English vocabulary words--then they hit a story where the words don't look like what they're supposed to look like--and it's baffling.  Audiobooks are good for helping that make sense.

There's no magic way to make your students able to deal with Victorian vocabulary or Shakespearian vocabulary or even dialects. However, incorporating some of these activities will help. The more students' senses are engaged in working with the words, the better they will learn them.