Vocabulary Instruction: Part 1 – Building Word Consciousness for ELs and Struggling Students

Word Power for ELLs

“Word consciousness – and especially understanding the power of word choice – is essential for sustained vocabulary growth. Words are the currency of written language. Learning new words is an investment, and students will make the required investment to the extent that they believe that the investment is worthwhile.” Judith Scott and William Nagy.
Because of the fact that words are the “currency” of the written language, word consciousness, although a relatively new concept, is critical to its successful application. Word consciousness involves two critical components. The first is an appreciation of the currency. Do students value new and vivid words, do they notice and appreciate descriptive language, do they stop and think about word choice in texts they read and in their own writing, etc? The second aspect of word consciousness is the idea that this awareness of and interest in words will lead students to the ability to know a word to the extent that they will have the desire to play with its meaning and apply it flexibly and accurately. It means that they will be invested enough to know a word truly in order to apply that knowledge anywhere at any time.
This is an immense task. But at the center of this challenge is the question of whether or not students even know “why words are important”. It is not enough for the adults who teach them to merely tell students about the power of this currency. Rather, students must appreciate the importance of words and their use for themselves. They must first have a sense of gratefulness for the way words can make a person feel and the things words can do beyond the page before they can be asked to invest so fully in the tasks of awareness and investment in this currency.
So what are some quick ways that can teachers build word consciousness in their classrooms?
• Let students lead and own how they define the importance of words and their use.
• Be interested in words yourself. Research has shown that when adults notice new words and get excited, that pattern of excitement is continued by the students who see this model.
• Have a word-rich classroom where students’ exposure to vocabulary. Students should be surrounded by words and books and motivated to learn the words within them.
• A safe environment where students feel comfortable trying out new words and talking about that choice is critical.
• Students become more engage with words when they have the opportunity to play games, puzzles, and take part in activities that allow them word choice.
• Give students choice. Self-direction is a powerful motivator for many activities, but even more so for the development of affect towards new words.
• Students must have intentionally planned time to engage in metacognitive discussions about word meaning interpretations, word parts, and other conceptual knowledge that will help them transfer the words to different contexts.
• Gradient activities allow students to see and play with relationships of “degree” between similar words with connotations such as angry and livid while leveraging nonlinguistic representations.