Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Dare to Differentiate: Vocabulary Strategies for All Students

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Dare to Differentiate: Vocabulary Strategies for All Students

Article excerpt

Llesenia arrives to the classroom nearly an hour before the first bell rings. She has completed all of her homework perfectly, organized her desk in preparation for the day's lessons and helps herself to different learning center activities to occupy herself while she awaits the start of school.

José shows up ten minutes late to class every day. He never has a pencil, and he does not seem to have the ability to sit in his seat for periods beyond eight minutes.

Anthony completes math exercises well ahead of his classmates, but he struggles during reading time and usually acts up.

Welcome to Ms. Kwon's fourth grade classroom. It could be just about any classroom in America. One of the epiphanies teachers reach within their first week of teaching is how, no matter what, every classroom is filled with students of mixed abilities and interests. Every student is different. This is the challenge good teachers face: how to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of every student. Differentiating instruction is especially critical in enhancing students' reading aptitudes and attitudes.

What is differentiated instruction?

Teachers need to keep in mind that instruction begins where the students are, not at the front of the curriculum guide (Tomlinson, 1999). Differentiated instruction permits all students to access the same classroom curriculum by providing entry points, learning tasks and outcomes that are tailored to students' needs (Hall, Strangman, & Meyer, 2003). Differentiated instruction is an approach, not any single strategy.

In aiding students' progress in reading (particularly in their vocabulary and, ultimately, comprehension development), teachers can create classrooms that meet state and federal standards and maintain high student expectations by supporting all students' learning modalities and differentiating through content, activities (process) and product, based on students' readiness, interests, profiles of learning and environments. Brassell and Rasinski (2008) describe a simple mnemonic trick to help teachers always keep differentiation in mind: each student is RIPE for learning when the teacher uses his/her thinking CAP. "RIPE" stands for Readiness, Interests, Profiles of Learning and Environments; "CAP" stands for Content, Activities (process) and Product.

Why is vocabulary instruction important?

Who are the more successful vocabulary teachers: optimists or pessimists? The answer is "optimists," and the reason is that optimists keep in mind that if at first they do not succeed they always try again. Optimistic vocabulary teachers display a passion for teaching that infects their students. We need plenty of optimistic and passionate teachers in our classrooms if we want our students to enhance their vocabulary development.

But that is only half the battle. If teachers want to make their vocabulary lessons "stick," teachers have to create rich and engaging activities that attract the enthusiasm of their students. Good vocabulary teachers need to have "weapons of mass instruction," a variety of research-based strategies for their vocabulary-teaching arsenals.

Before Carol Ann Tomlinson talked about differentiating instruction, Howard Gardner (1983) proposed that teachers recognize students' "multiple intelligences." Essentially, Gardner pointed out what Gary Coleman already preached: it takes different strokes for different folks. Some students learn vocabulary best by playing games, and others prefer drills. Teachers need to realize that they have to create classrooms that provide students with a variety of different vocabulary development activities to accommodate all students' learning interests and needs.

Although research has shown that vocabulary knowledge plays a critical role in students' literacy development, many teachers devote hardly any class time at all to vocabulary instruction (Scott, Jamieson-Noel, & Asselin, 2003). Moreover, teachers that do devote time to vocabulary instruction often use strategies that fail to increase students' vocabulary and comprehension abilities (see reviews in Blachowicz & Fisher, 2002; Nagy, 1988). …

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