Vocabulary development is something I often go back and forth about—from thinking it’s very important, to thinking it’s only relatively important. On the scale of what I do when I teach, formal vocabulary work is often toward the bottom; but I’m working with students who have achieved fairly little success in school, added to their difficulties with language to begin with. My students often come lacking even with the ability to formulate paragraphs, though most can do sentences accurately. Many come from homes where reading was not just unimportant, but also ignored in favor of TV, disorder, and conflict. I see a great need for vocabulary to be increased because of the increased demand on literary understanding—though, realistically, they aren’t going to be seeing or probably using “vocabulary words” outside of school.
I think that a component of vocabulary development, at least for teachers, is to know your goals for the vocabulary words. I know that my students generally aren’t college bound. To get them to graduate from high school (and often they are the first in their family to graduate) is what I’m helping them with. So vocabulary work that I do with them is on words I know they are probably going to hear or see in the news or in court or in a future job. I know many of them are not going to be above grade level on standardized tests—I know that even getting them to grade level is going to be a significant challenge since many of them, even though they are in high school, read at the 3rd to 4th grade level. Having a student who reads outside of school as a hobby and who has a large vocabulary is fairly rare, but I do have them occasionally. They are the ones who usually become the role models for the vocab work and can help the others learn the words faster.
What I know about vocab work is not to have students “look it up, write the definition and use it in a sentence.” That’s boring and not useful, especially for students with learning disabilities and reading comprehension issues and behavioral issues. One of the most useful things I do with my students is have them relate a new word to something familiar to them—however odd it might be; some of them used the idea of “police coming over” as what would make them remember the word seethe. Words need to be “owned” by the students if they are ever going to really know and use them. In my class, we create a big chart of words that we are learning and we can move them around and group them by adjectives, verbs etc… Or we can group them according to characters we are studying—which ones go with which characters or actions from a story. They also use the words to create lists of related things in their own lives.