Teaching Vocabulary: Hamlet as Man, Mystery, and…Delicious Pastry?

Teaching vocabulary helps students’ brains grow and expands their ability to make connections for new information.  It also helps them to do better on tests – whether the test is for language skills, math, or science.  In fact, studies have shown that the depth of a student’s vocabulary is a key indicator of the student’s ability to test successfully.  See, e.g., Marzano, et al., Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual (2005).  Flashcards and workbooks will help a child learn words, but for a child to truly learn vocabulary – that is, how words build context and meaning – children need experience and conversation.  Every time you talk with your child, you have a great opportunity to help them enrich their vocabulary and to help your child bridge the little gaps that may exist.

Several weeks ago, I was Skype tutoring a student to help him with his 9th-grade English assignments.  His class was reading Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Hamlet.  I asked my student to give me a short summary of Act I.  As he spoke, I became very confused: I didn’t remember that Hamlet involved so much eating.  But that’s what my student kept talking about – Hamlet eating.  I asked my student to tell me the exact lines that talked about eating.  He said, “Well, it’s all over!  It’s every time they talk about the danish!”

And that’s when I realized: Danish and danish.  This student only knew about the delicious pastry…not the citizens of Denmark!

When I explained what “Danish” really meant here – what the actual context was -- we both had a good laugh.  After all, Hamlet is pretty hilarious when it’s just baked goods on the line!

This is a funny and somewhat extreme example, but it shows you how important experience and attentive discussion are to building your child’s vocabulary.   As adults, we know how to ask clarifying questions when something is unclear to us.  Children learn how to do this when you ask them questions – whether it’s about something they’re reading, talking about, or observing.  Asking children questions, encouraging them to ask you questions, and responding with varied intonation, phrases, and colloquialisms helps a child’s vocabulary become richer and deeper and helps your child’s brain to make connections and develop the problem-solving skills that will help on tests – and everything else they do.

So, talk with your children.  Read with your children.  Talk with your children about what you’ve read with them.  And…eat danish with your children.  Just don’t eat the Danish.