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Vocabulary and Multilingual Writers
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I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms. This week, I’d like to consider vocabulary development, an area of struggle for many students in basic writing classrooms, but particularly for multilingual writers. When I poll my students about writing concerns, a lack of vocabulary is often mentioned as a barrier or challenge.
My current IRW co-requisite supports a writing-about-writing (WAW) FYC course, which means I am asking my students to tackle some tough reading assignments, and it is in the context of those reading assignments that I first address vocabulary. Before students begin a WAW reading assignment, I provide a reading guide that includes some key vocabulary words. The guide primes students for the text and scaffolds the reading for them, allowing them to work through the content without repeated stops to refer to a dictionary or a translator.
But this initial exposure to lexical items is only the start of the learning process; even though students will see the words multiple times within the context of the reading, “acquiring” these words means understanding more than a translation or a definition. Most linguists or language teachers would include the following as part of “knowing a word”: pronunciation, spelling, register, part of speech, connotations, and collocations, in addition to the dictionary definitions. And for many words, there are multiple definitions to consider.
Within my IRW classes, therefore, I target a set of critical vocabulary throughout the term. I choose words that I know students will encounter more than once in our class readings, words that are critical for discussions of language and writing. I may also choose words that occur on the Academic Word List, which is a list of words and word families that occur across multiple academic disciplines. When I “target” words, I introduce and highlight these words as they occur in context, and I provide focused practice and opportunities for use.
What does that look like? To highlight words in context, consider these strategies:
- Preview the words before a reading.
- Highlight the words in a reading by reading paragraphs aloud, emphasizing target words, and discussing the sentences in which they occur.
- Incorporate the words in lectures and include them on class handouts and assignment instructions, giving students a chance to hear and see them.
- Ask students open-ended questions that include the words.
To provide more focused instruction, consider these ideas:
- Provide related parts of speech. For example, when students learn the noun “concession,” I also teach the related verb “concede.” Then students practice with both words, using cloze (fill in the blank) and grammatical judgment exercises. The latter type of exercise requires students to determine whether or not something is a possible sentence. For example, students must determine if we can say, “I will concession this point.” If they decide it is not acceptable, then they offer an alternative: we’d have to say “concede this point.”
- Provide collocations. We can make concessions or offer concessions, but we don’t do concessions. We make a concession on or about a certain issue, and we concede that something is the case; we don’t make concessions to an issue (although we can make a concession to a person), and we don’t concede to do something (with an infinitive). Again, I present this information explicitly (a chart works well to show verb + prepositions combinations), point to it in our readings, and provide practice exercises. I frequently draw the incorrect sentences for these exercises from examples in student writing, and students often seemed relieved to have the clarification.
- Look at contrasts carefully. As students study words and look at translations, they may encounter similar words with different connotations or nuances. With concession, for example, students may want to understand the difference between a concession and an admission; we discuss those differences explicitly. At times, students ask questions I can’t answer immediately. After all, there are many things about words that I know intuitively but have never been required to articulate. I will think about the question for a day or two, perhaps ask a colleague or consult the OED, and then take an answer back to the class. We also make the fact of tacit knowledge a topic of class discussion, emphasizing that all of us, as language-users, have such knowledge about language.
- Celebrate attempts to use the words, whether successful or not.
While some of these activities may seem daunting or time-consuming, it actually takes little time to preview words and find ways to emphasize them within the context of other class activities. The focus exercises are not particularly hard to draw up either, and can be implemented in just a few moments at the beginning or the end of a class.
Finally, instructors can let students guide on-going vocabulary study by asking for some basic feedback at the end of a class period or as part of a reflection journal: What are three words from our reading or class discussion that confused you or that you’d like to know more about?
For more about vocabulary and multilingual writers, I recommend the work of Paul Nation, Keith Folse, or Michael Lewis.
What are your strategies for helping multilingual writers learn and use new vocabulary?
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