“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” —Benjamin Franklin
Exactly what does it mean to know a word? Is knowing a word being able to read it or say it? Is it being able to restate a definition? Research suggests that the answer to these questions is no. Knowing a word by sight and sound and recalling its dictionary definition are not knowing how to use the word correctly and understanding it in different contexts (Miller & Gildea 1987).
Nagy and Scott (2000) shared a process that describes the complexity of what it means to know a word. First, word knowledge is incremental; readers need to have many exposures in different contexts to a word before they can “know” it. Second, word knowledge is multidimensional; many words have multiple meanings and serve different functions (one word can be a noun, a verb, and an adjective). Third, word knowledge is interrelated; knowledge of one word connects to knowledge of other words.
“Knowing” a word is a matter of degree; it is not all-or-nothing (Beck & McKeown 1991, Nagy & Scott 2000). The degrees of knowing a word are shown by how we use a word, how quickly we understand a word, and how well we understand and use a word in different contexts and for different purposes.
Knowing a word also means connecting that word to other words. The more we know about a specific concept, the more words we acquire related to that concept, for example knitting or scuba diving. Based on interests and backgrounds, individuals bring different words to shape understanding.
Finally, knowing a word means being able to appreciate its connotations and subtleties. We really know a word when we can use and recognize it in idioms, jokes, slang, and puns (Johnson, Johnson & Schlicting 2004).
I use many formative assessment activities in my classroom when introducing new vocabulary. A fast and easy one is “corners.” The numbers 1-4 are hung in the corners of my classroom. Students move to the corner that identifies their level of comfort with the word. I give silly explanations each time about what the corners mean. For example, sometimes its a rating between “Duh” and “Ah ha.” Basically, 1 means “I don’t know anything about this word.” 2 means “I’ve seen it or heard it, but am not sure what it means.” Students choose 3 when they have some connections and are somewhat comfortable with the word, while 4 is for students who are ready to explain the word to the class. This is a great activity because it allows for movement and it is easy to see at a glance a basic level for starting a discussion on a word.
Another activity I use is “Know or No?” Complete the sheet (shown below) with a list of words the students will need for a new concept. This list gives a picture of each child’s readiness for that concept. After the students complete the list, it is important to give the kids a chance to discuss their knowledge with a shoulder partner, small group, and/or the class. This immediately begins the knowledge building process.
Consider using knowledge rating assessments in your classroom to get your kids started on new word acquisition.