How teachers can approach vocabulary in high school

How teachers can approach vocabulary in high school

Academic and literacy expert Misty says high school teachers need to ensure their students have a solid grasp of vocabulary across all disciplines.

Teaching literacy in high school can be a huge challenge, especially when varied literacy levels and different disciplines come into play. But if addressed correctly, literacy expert and researcher Misty Adoniou said student outcomes can be shifted.

The Adjunct Associate Professor joined The Teacher’s Toolkit for Literacy to discuss how educators of all disciplines, not just English, need to ensure their students understand how language works within their specific subject.

“We’re not expecting you to teach these kids to read and write. We’re asking you to apprentice them into reading and writing like a historian or like a scientist. We’re asking you to let your kids in on how language works in your discipline,” Misty said.

“Because the bottom line is science teachers only know how language works in science. So we really need to be helping our kids understand how language works in science, and that’s the job in secondary school.”

Misty explained that one of the key areas to focus on is vocabulary.

“My starting place is always vocabulary because science, history, art, music and tech teachers know that the vocab is different. It’s technical and specific. So we need to look at strategies to go deeper with kids beyond just glossaries, which is usually the first place you go,” Misty explained.

It’s particularly crucial that students understand how to unpack words and their underlying concepts, because 80% of words students come across in high school are multi-morphemic words that they haven’t encountered.

Therefore, looking at the roots, the prefixes and suffixes, of words is key.

“A lot of words that students come across every day, they haven’t seen before, and teachers cannot be expected to teach every single one of those words. And so what we need is to give these kids skills to recognise how to unpack those words. And that’s not just knowing how to spell it and what it means, but also to understand the underlying concept,” Misty said.

Through several examples, Misty revealed this strategy is beneficial across many disciplines and can provide guidance for students who are having to navigate and immerse themselves in up to six different subjects a day.

“For example, in mathematics, the perimeter is the thing where you have to measure around the edges of a shape and add them up to find the perimeter,” Misty explained.

“So the word itself, ‘perimeter’, tells you that’s what you’re supposed to do because ‘peri’ means around and meter means measurement. So the word itself is giving you the mathematical clue of what you’re supposed to do. And once you’ve told the kids that, then suddenly you have kids that remember the difference between perimeter and area because the word itself is telling them.

“Then once you’ve taught them about meter meaning measurement, then we’ve got a whole lot of other words that are going to be easy to unpack. So then maybe with thermometer we can say, ‘ok ‘thermo’ is heat, so a thermometer is something that measures temperature’. And then when they go to PE and read about thermoregulation or hyperthermia, they can go okay ‘thermo is heat, what does ‘hyper’ mean?’

“So that kind of exploration and deep dive into vocabulary is a really excellent way in with secondary teachers … and it’s giving a very time efficient way of helping kids with large words that they’ve never seen before so they can make their own way and comprehend these texts that they’re given.”

Find out more on Episode 58 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy below or subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Google Podcasts.

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