Strategies for Tackling Unfamiliar Vocabulary

Last summer as I reflected on my first year of teaching 5th grade, I considered the many skills and strategies that I wanted to weave into learning experiences throughout the year. Tackling unfamiliar vocabulary was something I knew would be helpful to all readers regardless of reading level, genre or unit of study. 

There are many reasons why I selected The BFG by Roald Dahl as the read aloud to teach into and provide opportunities for this type of work. (Guided Reading Level: U)

First of all, the plot is amazing. This is a story about the unlikely friendship between the Big Friendly Giant (BFG) and a clever young girl named Sophie. The BFG is an easily confused character, so the reader has to pay close attention to the text to make sense of what he is saying. Luckily, Sophie asks many questions to help clarify what is being said. Since our Fantasy reading unit was not until May, I thought this would be a great way to preview the genre. 

Secondly, Dahl takes the opportunity to invent a lot of vocabulary for this story. For example as a vegetarian giant, the only thing the BFG eats is a disgusting vegetable called the snozzcumber. 

Third, and most important for the purpose of the read aloud, the book contains an abundance of rich vocabulary. I reread the BFG through the lens of tricky vocabulary, and I was not disappointed. I collected these words and created a series of word banks, which I distributed to students to reference during read alouds. Each time we encountered a word in the text, we would stop to determine its meaning. (I was careful not to pick too many vocabulary words.)

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As I prepared to launch the read aloud of The BFG, it occurred to me to access the class’ previous knowledge of word solving strategies. So I opened it up to them. I asked, “What are some strategies that we already know to help us figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words?” Their answers were so strong and impressive that I charted them.

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If they were able to name so many different strategies, why did they have a hard time using them? It turned out that they simply needed opportunities to practice using them. Each time we read The BFG, I made sure the chart was in our meeting area. By the time we reached the end of the book, these young learners had become much more confident word solvers. The chart remained up in our class for the rest of the school year, and students easily transferred these skills across genres and content areas.

There are Two Sides to Every Story, and Then There is the Truth

Everybody knows the story of the three little pigs. Each little pig builds its house out of a material sturdier than the last. One chooses straw. One chooses sticks. One chooses bricks. The big bad wolf blows down the houses of the first two pigs and is unable to destroy the home of the third.

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The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka presents the wolf’s side of the story. It provides a hilarious, new twist on a childhood classic. 

According to A. Wolf, he was baking a birthday cake for his dear old grandma when he ran out of sugar. He visited his neighbors, the three pigs, looking to borrow a cup of sugar. It just so happens that A. Wolf had a cold, which caused him to sneeze. He claims, blowing down the houses of the first two pigs was an accident.

The True Story… (Guided Reading Level: Q) is great for readers of all ages, from kindergarten to 5th grade. I’ve used this picture book with upper elementary students to encourage them to consider different perspectives in the texts they read, whether they are reading fiction or non-fiction. Near the end of the school year, we have a unit on Independent Writing Projects. Each year, inspired by this book, at least one student will try his/her hand at rewriting a classic fairy tale from a different point of view.

Series and Sequels

You know that feeling you get when you’ve just finished an amazing book? You loved the plot and grew attached to the characters. The central problem has been resolved, though smaller ones may remain up in the air. Then you learn that the author has released a sequel or that the book you just read is in fact part of a series, and the fun does not have to end just yet!

Books in a series or sequels to books are a great way to engage readers at all levels, particularly reluctant readers or struggling readers. The familiarity of characters, setting, plot line, and the type of problems the characters face allow the reader to feel like they have already done some of the hard work and can pick up where they left off. 

In a post earlier this week, I wrote about Because of Mr. Terupt. I recently read the sequel Mr. Terupt Falls Again by Rob Buyea.

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After a challenging fifth grade year, the students in Mr. Terupt’s class have the opportunity to loop up to sixth grade together. The book follows the same lovable characters as they navigate another action-packed school year.  

As a sequel, this book did not disappoint. Same great, complex and realistic characters. Peer pressure is front and center. Overall the same important themes emerge, the importance of sticking together, standing up for what you believe in, taking time to understand the point of view of others, etc. However, it is important to note that this sequel features a lot of mature topics, including substance use, smoking. Also physical development in girls is also a topic that keeps coming up, as the characters in the story are in sixth grade.Based on the content of the book I’d recommend it for middle school students rather than those in elementary school.  

The third book in the series, Saving Mr. Terupt, was just released, and I am looking forward to reading it. Stay tuned!