A friend was reading a book recently and about ten pages into it, asked if I knew a word that the author had used. I didn’t. We tried to guess, based on its use in the sentence.
Failing that, she put the book aside to find a dictionary. It happened again, perhaps twenty pages later. And again. By the fifth encounter with obscure language, she put the book aside for good. Though highly literate, she was simply having to work too hard to stay engaged with the story on the page.
For the two students I coached in reading last year, nearly every sentence contained words that were unfamiliar to them. Some, like courage and scarcely, were intended to extend their vocabulary; others, like swamp, were simply inaccessible to children who have no context for “a lowland region saturated with water.” As a new coach, I had them start into a new story each week. We stopped each time they encountered an unfamiliar word or phrase. I took great care to explain the meanings, giving examples that they might identify with, sometimes even drawing crude illustrations. I made flash cards with the words and definitions so that we could practice from week to week. They learned some of the words. However, they rarely knew what the story was about by the time we reached the end.
Pre-teaching vocabulary is one of the most important strategies we can employ to build reading fluency and comprehension. For students learning to read, reviewing the most challenging words in advance is like turning on the lamps in a darkened room: it illuminates the contours of the story to come, making it more accessible. Once I started pre-teaching vocabulary, I noticed that my students were more willing to read aloud and their comprehension of the story line improved. Perhaps most importantly, they discovered enjoyment in the simple act of reading. – Pat.