Frontier Words

Writing well involves choosing the right words — exactly the right words — to say what you want to say. This is easier if you know more words. For that reason, as well as the benefit for a reader or test taker of having a large vocabulary, it’s worth studying vocabulary.

The way we usually go about this is to take a list of words, often words associated with some test or a list of important words such as the Dolch list or the Fry list, and to practice them in a variety of ways, often using flashcards or memorization for quizzes.

Students tend to do pretty badly at this. They may remember the word long enough for the test, but they rarely gain enough control over their new words to use them, and so they forget the ones they “learned.”

Instead, think of the student’s vocabulary as a bulls eye. The inner ring, the bullseye itself,  is the active vocabulary, the words that student actually uses all the time. Words like “house” and “chair” and “whatever” belong in that ring.

The next ring is the passive vocabulary. These are words that the student completely understands, but doesn’t use. “Emphasis” might be one for an average upper elementary student, or “sullen.” It is very personal, though, so it is hard to make a list of likely words. For me, “nomenclature” is a passive vocabulary word. I know the word, and would always get questions about it right on tests, but I don’t actually use it.

The outside space is for Outer Space words. These are words that you don’t know at all. “Ogee” was one of those words for me until I came across it in a crossword puzzle. I just didn’t know what it meant at all, and had never seen it, and didn’t know how to pronounce it. I didn’t know that word.

There is still a ring remaining between the Outer Space words ring and the Passive words ring. That is the Frontier Words ring. These are words that are familiar. They are not Outer Space words that you’ve never heard or seen. They aren’t in your passive vocabulary, words you really know quite well but don’t happen to use. They are words that you sort of know. They are familiar. You may know how to spell them, or how to pronounce them. You have a vague idea of their meanings, but not enough that you could actually use them confidently if you wanted to.

“Ogee” is now a Frontier Word for me. I know that it is a term in architecture, having to do with arches, and I have a sense that it is used about windows. I think it’s a shape. I can spell it, and I believe that it is a noun. I couldn’t say, “Ah, what a beautiful ogee!” though, with any confidence. I don’t remember how to pronounce it, and I wouldn’t know for sure which arches are ogees. I’m not even sure that sentence made sense.

Most vocabulary lists that we present to our students have a mixture of all these types of words, a different mix for each kid. Some of us carefully choose lists that we believe will be completely new to all our students — Outer Space Words for everyone.

This is not a good strategy.

Studying  words in our active or passive vocabularies is not useful at all. We already know those words, and we gain nothing by looking them up in the dictionary or copying them over six times or any of the other assignments we so often give.

It certainly is possible to learn Outer Space words. However, we often just move them into our Frontier Words ring — that’s what I did with “ogee.” I looked it up in the dictionary, but I haven’t thought about it or used it since I met it in the crossword puzzle, so I forgot most of what the dictionary said about it.

However, since it is now a Frontier Word for me, I could pretty easily learn it and get it into my passive vocabulary.

And I could very easily start using the word “nomenclature” if I found myself in a situation in which it was a useful word.

It is easy to move words in one ring on the target from where they currently are. Students can learn ten Frontier Words in the time it takes them to learn one Outer Space word.

So, for efficient vocabulary study, you should have students identify their Frontier Words. Have students underline them when reading, list them on the board when you notice a word in content lessons that most of the class seems to be a little vague about, notice words that are used not-quite-correctly in class discussions.

These are the words to study.

You’ll notice that you end up with a different list for each kid with this method. Don’t let that discourage you. Use a Pocket Chart to collect words that show up on most everyone’s Frontier Words list, and move the word cards into the Passive and Active spaces as most of the students gain control over them. Have individual students keep their own lists, perhaps in a shape book or an accordion list like these.


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