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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Every Monday, my seventh grade English teacher would have us copy a list of 25 words she'd written on the board. We'd then look up the dictionary definitions and copy those down. For homework, we'd re-write each word seven times.

Good, now you know it. Test on Friday and never for those 25 words to be seen again. Poof. Old school, yes. Mundane task, yes. Did it work? I don't remember. Probably not.

Copying definitions from the dictionary we would probably all agree is not an effective way to learn vocabulary. Passive learning hardly ever is. It's just often the way we learned, and as teachers, we sometimes fall back on using these ways when teaching rather than taking a good look at student data, the latest research, and then trying something new.

The truth is, and the research shows, students need multiple and various exposures to a word before they fully understand that word and can apply it. They need also to learn words in context, not stand alone lists that come and go each week. Of course the way we learn words in context, or implicitly, is by reading, then reading some more. (This is why every classroom should have a killer classroom library stocked full of high-interest, age appropriate books.)

Selecting Words

Ah, so many words, so little time. When choosing which words deserve special instructional time, we don't have to do it alone. One of the biggest mistakes we teachers make in vocabulary instruction is selecting all the words for the students and not giving them a say in the matter.

My first year teaching, before my tenth graders began reading Lord of the Flies, I went through every chapter and made lists of all the vocabulary words I thought they'd have trouble with, so that I could pre-teach them.

When I looked at those long lists, I began to freak out. How will I teach all these words, and still have class time for all the other things we need to do? First off, rather than waste my time compiling lists, I should have let the kids skim the text in chapter one and select their own words.

Then, here's what to do after the students pick their own words:

  • Ask each child to create a chart where he/she writes down words of choice, and rates each one as "know it," "sort of know it," or "don't know it at all."
  • Then, on the same paper, have them write a definition or "my guess on meaning" for the words they know and kind of know (No dictionaries!)

Before they turn in these pre-reading charts, be sure to emphasize this is not about "being right" but that they are providing you with information to guide next steps in class vocabulary instruction.

Read through them all and use the results as a formative assessment. This data will show you which words they know, those they have some understanding of, and those words that are completely foreign to them.

The kids have selected and rated the words, and now it's your turn.

Ranking Words

When considering which words need the most instructional attention, let's turn to Isabel Beck's practical way of categorizing vocabulary words into three tiers:

Tier One: Basic words that rarely require instructional focus (door, house, book).

Tier Two: Words that appear with high frequency, across a variety of domains, and are crucial when using mature, academic language (coincidence, reluctant, analysis).

Tier Three: Frequency of these words is quite low and often limited to specific fields of study (isotope, Reconstruction, Buddhism).

Beck suggests that students will benefit the most academically by focusing instruction on the tier two words (since these appear with much higher frequency than tier three words, and are used across domains). So, this is when you take a look at the pre-reading vocabulary charts your kids created and choose "kind of" and "don't know at all" words that you deem to be tier two words. Go ahead and select some content-specific words (tier three) but only those directly related to the chapter, article, short story, or whatever you are about to read.

You now have a vocabulary list. It's time to teach.

Teaching Words

If you haven't heard of him, I'd like to introduce Robert Marzano. This guy is pretty amazing, having spent countless hours observing students and teachers. An education researcher and teacher, he stresses that in all content areas, direct vocabulary instruction is essential and suggests six steps:

Step one: The teacher explains a new word, going beyond reciting its definition (tap into prior knowledge of students, use imagery).

Step two: Students restate or explain the new word in their own words (verbally and/or in writing).

Step three: Ask students to create a non-linguistic representation of the word (a picture, or symbolic representation).

Step four: Students engage in activities to deepen their knowledge of the new word (compare words, classify terms, write their own analogies and metaphors).

Step five: Students discuss the new word (pair-share, elbow partners).

Step six: Students periodically play games to review new vocabulary (Pyramid, Jeopardy, Telephone).

Marzano's six steps do something revolutionary to vocabulary learning: They make it fun. Students think about, talk about, apply, and play with new words. And Webster doesn't get a word in edgewise.

The Rationale

At this point, you might be thinking that there just isn't enough time for all this pre-reading word analysis, direct instruction of vocabulary, and game playing. (You have content to teach!) So, I'd like end with a few quotes for you to consider:

Vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school. -- W.B. Elley

Because each new word has to be studied and learned on its own, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning. So your learning speed, or pace, should increase as your vocabulary grows. -- Johnson O'Connor

We think with words, therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary. -- A. Draper and G. Moeller

Resources

Books to help you focus and fine-tune your vocabulary instruction:

Web sites that share effective and engaging vocabulary activities:

This blog post was originally written 12/17/2010 and it was updated 1/16/2014.

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Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

I think this method could probably work with more than just vocabulary. I worked with intervals as a music teacher and we would practice so-mi in so many different and fun ways it became second nature. Then, whenI introduced something new, they had already mastered so-mi and could take on the new note with ease!

Ryan Reed's picture
Ryan Reed
7/8th Grade Social Studies Teacher in Maine

I find my biggest challenge is that my students struggle to come up with nonverbal representations on their own. Something about their past has killed that creativity.

Beth Bursi's picture
Beth Bursi
9th grade teacher from Brighton, Tennessee

I personally have misconstrued the meanings of words by merely using context clues. I would caution teachers not to completely set aside the dictionaries!

VocabularySpellingCity.com Mayor's picture
VocabularySpellingCity.com Mayor
I'm the founder of VocabularySpellingCity.com, my contribution to education

I read your article with great interest and I'd like respectfully to raise a few questions. While I'm sorry that at school, you had to memorize 25 words randomly each week but I question whether this "straw man" is really how teachers are using words lists in US schools in 2014. At VocabularySpellingCity, we see millions of word lists posted by teachers and students. While we haven't had the resources to do a full study of them, I'd characterize the lists as organized along a few principles:
- phonics- or spelling-rule based. Many lists are built around, for instance, "Long Es" or any other rule important to practicing and mastering phonics principles that are key to decoding and reading. We see this at almost all grade levels, it seems there is a great deal of remediation.
- Student-created lists from their own challenges or reading.
- Academic Vocabulary. This has been really hot the last few years and it appears useful to help many less advantaged students to "crack the code" of what the teachers and tests are asking. None of this vocabulary, vital to academic success, appears learnable through much-prescribed solution of "read, read, read!"
- Content vocabulary. This is often used to introduce or review units and subjects. It seems especially effective as a routine review of material previously learned as a way to help lock concepts (often related to vocabulary) into long-term memory.
- Word morphology - Word lists are a great way for students to learn the meaning of prefixes and roots. Microphone next to hydrophone and hydroplane and telephone and telegraph....students learning these words are pretty likely to pick up on some patterns which they can use in the future. Looked at in isolation or as lists of roots and affixes, it's real hard for students to construct any feel or enthusiasm for Greek and Latin roots.
And so on.

One more point. The statistics and trends on getting students to read are so dismal that I'm skeptical that the key to academic success, vocabulary, should be entirely pinned to getting students to read vast amounts. I think word lists are a vital tool in a teachers' and students' arsenal and while the idea can be ridiculed if stupidly organized, I think that a constructive approach would be to ask why so many teachers and schools and curricula consider word lists to be a vital component of academic study. We believe that the vast majority of teacher do use word lists on a routine basis as a learning tool. We think they do it effectively with proper context, preparation, and followup.. We don't think they are being stupid and wasting their time nor their students' time.

John, Founder and Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity.com (and the app too)

James's picture

I agree, Rebecca. We learn words in context by reading.

It is so important to see vocabulary words in context to fully grasp the meaning. If you want example sentences for words, give http://www.wordsinasentence.com a try. This site uses simple sentences to define the meanings of complicated words. And it uses 10 unique sentences per word, not just one or two...so after you read the page, you should know what the word means.

Ivy Gastelum's picture

I agree with the ideas Rebecca presented and have used several of Marzano's and Gallagher's strategies--especially Kelly Gallagher's ideas for scaffolding non-fiction for high school students and his "Articles of the Week".
I teach AP English Literature and Composition in an urban school with a high home-grown LEP population. I recognize that my students' reading comprehension issues, especially with 16th and 17th century poetry are to be expected. In fact, one word can often derail them, like "sinew"; many automatically focus on "sin" and think the speaker or subject has sinister intentions. At least they are utilizing their morphology lessons. However, in conjunction with potential misreads, I have observed a lack of academic transfer of higher-level vocabulary into their writing. A pupil may comprehend the vocabulary, but won't use it or complex sentences under time constraints. Hence, the ideas may be great, but the writing is simplistic and the student will not earn above a 3 on the exam.
I am definitely soliciting help on this matter, so any suggestions anyone has will be appreciated.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY
Blogger 2014

Ivy,

Like you, I am an AP Literature teacher and my students encounter similar derailments with reading comprehension and that connects with unsophisticated writing. I've made a point of providing students with repeated exposure to Tier Two words. As Rebecca describes, they are "words that appear with high frequency, across a variety of domains, and are crucial when using mature, academic language (coincidence, reluctant, analysis)."

The two ways I achieve this are:

1. Repeated modeling from sample AP essays. I have students highlight, underline, annotate the words that add sophistication to an essay without being pretentious or showy. Doing this exercise over and over again shows how a handful of words can elevate an essay and add strength to an argument.

2. Also, I have Tier 2 words on a classroom word wall and make a point of asking students to phrase their insights using the level of vocabulary we are trying to achieve. Of course, I don't do this for all dialogue in the classroom, only at selected moments when I feel a teachable experience may occur. This also implicitly conveys the idea that one's tone and diction should be suited to the situation. I don't want to interrupt the casualness and spontaneity of think-pair-share moments by asking them to use "Tier 2 words." However, I will during Socratic Seminars so that the entire class can benefit from a rich, sophisticated experience.

(1)
Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY
Blogger 2014

Ivy,

Like you, I am an AP Literature teacher and my students encounter similar derailments with reading comprehension and that connects with unsophisticated writing. I've made a point of providing students with repeated exposure to Tier Two words. As Rebecca describes, they are "words that appear with high frequency, across a variety of domains, and are crucial when using mature, academic language (coincidence, reluctant, analysis)."

The two ways I achieve this are:

1. Repeated modeling from sample AP essays. I have students highlight, underline, annotate the words that add sophistication to an essay without being pretentious or showy. Doing this exercise over and over again shows how a handful of words can elevate an essay and add strength to an argument.

2. Also, I have Tier 2 words on a classroom word wall and make a point of asking students to phrase their insights using the level of vocabulary we are trying to achieve. Of course, I don't do this for all dialogue in the classroom, only at selected moments when I feel a teachable experience may occur. This also implicitly conveys the idea that one's tone and diction should be suited to the situation. I don't want to interrupt the casualness and spontaneity of think-pair-share moments by asking them to use "Tier 2 words." However, I will during Socratic Seminars so that the entire class can benefit from a rich, sophisticated experience.

(1)

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