What do we do when students don’t know seemingly everyday words?


When is the last time you encountered words (in English) that you didn’t know? How did it impact your understanding? How did it make you feel?

I encounter unfamiliar words once in a while, but I honestly can’t recall a recent example. The last time I was truly stymied by vocabulary was my sophomore year in college, in a poli sci class. I remember reading a challenging text and stumbling over words like “diaspora” and “hegemony.”

There were so many unfamiliar terms that I couldn’t make sense of the reading at all. I was so frustrated that I was nearly in tears by the time I got to my TA’s office hours.

Why write about this now?

In the past week, I’ve had several conversations about vocabulary with colleagues, and they helped me realize that I might be overlooking critical vocabulary deficits in my students. (This is caused by their lack of reading, but that’s another subject.)

Sure, I know that my AP Macro students don’t know what “expenditure,” “propensity” and “aggregate” mean. I know that my AP Psych students don’t know what “longitudinal,” “adaptive” and “conditioning” mean. We discuss and define those words in class; they are part of the explicit course content.

But what about more common words like “prior,” “preference” and “novel”? I’d like to think that high school students come into class knowing these, but unfortunately, many of them don’t. They see the words “novel stimulus” on a test about infant development, and they are baffled.

This deficit not only makes learning the subject more difficult — it makes students lose confidence in their abilities. What’s worse than realizing you are lost in a text or conversation?

So what should we do about it?

When I was in high school, English teachers always assigned us vocabulary workbooks – no doubt aimed at boosting our SAT scores. We had to define – and use in a sentence – all sorts of words we never used again, like “traduce”  and “unctuous”.

I promptly forgot most of them, so that doesn’t seem like the best approach.

Nor is it good enough to merely use the words in class. Too many students are willing to let unfamiliar terms brush past them – without asking – because it’s too embarrassing to speak up, and they’ve grown accustomed being confused.

One option is to simplify our readings and tests, like we do (quite reasonably) for English language learners. No one expects a new English speaker to know a word like “hinder,” so it’s fine to replace it with “make difficult.”

But if we do this over and over — for our fluent English speakers — we’re just contributing to their vocabulary deficit. When they meet any college text, they’ll be hindered, to say the least.

Nancy Fenton, a rock star AP Psych teacher at Stevenson High School in Illinois, includes a handful of words like “prior” and “novel” — words that appear on tests but aren’t necessarily psych terms — in each unit study guide. She’s taken the time to figure out which words show up frequently and really impede her students’ understanding. That’s a great idea.

Another strategy is to ask students to put unfamiliar words on Post-its or online Padlets to share anonymously, so they can ask for help without feeling self-conscious. I’m sure I’d be surprised by the words that show up, but at least I would be aware.

Then how do we get students to internalize and remember these words?

I might need to ask an EL or language arts teacher for help with that, but ignoring the vocabulary deficit is definitely the wrong approach. We can’t very well expect students to be successful if they don’t know what we’re talking about.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush