Five Things Every Teacher Should Know about Vocabulary Instruction

  • 28 September, 2019
  • 17 Comments

Teacher question:

What’s the best way to teach and have students master vocabulary?

Shanahan response:

My original reaction to this question was not exactly what I’d label a model of helpfulness.

The question was asked by someone new to my blog and I started to send him a note telling him I’d written about that several times already and if he searched my website, he’d find an answer to his question.

But I had second thoughts and decided to be a bit more accommodating. I still didn’t intend to write a blog entry. I figured it would be generous to identify some specific links from the site, so he wouldn’t have to search it himself.

I was surprised when I was unable to find much of an answer to this very reasonable pedagogical question. I’ve written about vocabulary a bit and have linked some vocabulary resources on my site. But there is no clear statement of what works in vocabulary teaching. Let’s remedy that now.

First some preliminaries.

I’ve learned over the years that all words are not equal.

For instance, some words are more useful than others. Knowing the meaning of “obloquy” likely pays off less often than knowing “shame.”

Readers need to know the words that authors use. You only have so much time, be sure to invest it in teaching words that will open the most doors to understanding for your students.

Another implication is that some words are learned more easily than others. I’ve taught myself to read French, a language I do not speak (though these days I’m even trying that). With some unknown words, looking them up in the dictionary seems sufficient to make them my words ever. But there are also slippery words that I’ve looked up dozens of times with success.

Teachers need to recognize—and be patient—with this great unevenness—not just across kids, but in each student’s experience.

A second preliminary is the distinction between vocabulary and concept. Vocabulary refers to the labels that we associate with particular concepts or ideas, while the concepts are those ideas that the words refer to.

A word like “shimmer” will be easily learned by kids who have seen light waver, but more effort will be required for those who do not. If it is a lack of vocabulary, much of this work can be done verbally, but if it is a lack of concept, then words alone probably won’t be enough.

A final preliminary thought is that much vocabulary is learned without formal teaching. We gain words from conversation, observation, television/media use, reading, and so on. We learn so many words like that that some scholars have scoffed at the value of explicit teaching. Nevertheless, research shows that teaching vocabulary can measurably improve reading comprehension—if we teach the right words well enough.

Effective vocabulary teaching has some key principles.

1.     Focus on rich meanings, not just dictionary definitions.

Too often vocabulary instruction is no more than kids copying definitions from the dictionary. But researchers have identified a number of instructional approaches that outdo any learning that may accrue from copying definitions.

One of those key principles is that students work with more extensive or complex definitions or explanations of word meanings. Encourage the encyclopedia explanation over the dictionary meanings.

When I teach vocabulary, I often have the kids engage in trying to provide several different versions of a word’s definition.

  1. Dictionary definition
  2. Synonyms for the word
  3. Antonyms (if there are any)
  4. Part of speech
  5. Classification (what semantic group does it belong to, like tools or ways of talking)
  6. Comparison (it is like____, but different because______)
  7. Real-life examples
  8. Graphic version (drawings, pictures, representations)
  9. Acting it out

By the time you’ve come up with nine different explanations of a word you are more likely to remember it (and, of course, we can do more than just these nine if we want to get into analogies, part-whole relationships, and the like).

2.     Emphasize the connections among words.

Many vocabulary programs introduce words by category, such as focusing on words from health and medicine or about transportation, including some that have research showing that they can be effective. However, direct research specifically on this aspect of teaching, suggest that word learning goes slower and without evident later advantage from the extra work that mastering these words entails needed to master these sets of words.

And, yet, evidence reveals that the lexicons in our heads are organized in various networks, not like dictionaries. When you remember a word, you draw from memory a plethora of related ideas—attributes, functions, and synonyms related to that word.

Start thinking diesel trucks and words like wheel, tire, dump truck, gasoline, and highway will not be far behind.

There are circumstances in which it is necessary to simultaneously introduce collections of closely related words that may require fine or subtle distinctions, such as when kids are learning about the structure of cells or atoms. I’ll give that a pass, since such introductions are likely to be accompanied by a much deeper dive into the underlying concepts in such cases.

I also think it is quite reasonable when teaching words to get kids thinking about words about that concept that they may already have mastered. Linking a new word to a concept, is very different than trying to learn and link a whole collection of words.  

I would avoid introducing together plethora, dearth, scarcity, cornucopia, shortage, plenty, sufficient, abundant, and liberal as some programs do. Collect such words over time as they are learned and then later you can have kids comparing the ideas or fitting them into continuum or network.

One teacher I know has her students classifying the vocabulary each week in bulletin board folders, and when a folder accumulates several related words, they revisit them as a set.

3.     Promote usage of the words.

It is not enough that kids study word meanings, but they have to learn to use these words in their reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Instruction should create opportunities for kids to use words in all of these ways.

For instance, that rich vocabulary assignment that was described earlier can be done by groups of kids working together to come up with those multiple definitions. That kind of cooperation requires that kids talk with each other about the words. Additionally, I often assign small numbers of words to each group and then have them get together to teach each other the words that their groups studied… more speaking and listening.

One might reward kids for using the studied vocabulary in their writing—or that can be required in various ways.

Isabel Beck and Moddy McKeown came up with the idea of “word wizards,” which gave kids extra points in vocabulary if they could bring in evidence that they had confronted or used the words of interest. Kids get very turned on if they run across some of the vocabulary when watching television or playing their favorite computer game.

4.     Review is important.

It can be hard to retain vocabulary if you don’t get a lot of opportunity to use it. We may teach vocabulary because certain words were prominent in the texts, we were reading this week, but then kids might not see them for a long time.

There are many ways to deal with vocabulary, such as having one day a week when you only work with words that have been taught (and supposedly learned) in the past—or perhaps entire weeks might be devoted to this throughout the year.

I’m a fan of including words from past weeks on vocabulary quizzes and for the use of vocabulary notebooks to help punch up kids’ writing during revision.

Another way of ensuring the words stick, is to see how many additional words students can construct morphologically, adding prefixes or suffixes or altering parts of speech and so on. I’ve written about some of the important work being done on morphology by Peter and Jeffrey Bowers before (and you can search for that on my site or on Google).

5.     Involve students in identifying some of the words to be studied.

I noted earlier that much vocabulary learning is incidental and, therefore, largely out of the province of schools. However, not all kids are equally good at such learning and even for those who it is easier, it can still be a tough slog requiring many experiences with a word to get it to stick.

One thing that we can do to help develop a “word consciousness” among our students is to involve them in identifying unknown words from their own reading—and to include these in your classroom curriculum. When readers get used to noticing their lack of knowledge of particular words, they will be more likely to try to resolve those gaps when reading. Kids will also be more motivated if they have some say so over the curriculum as well.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Barney Brawer
Sep 28, 2019 11:42 PM

The best way, I think, to help kids expand their vocabulary is to have them read interesting content and talk about it. At the start of the year, give every student a Personal Dictionary which is a blank notebook, to be always kept in the classroom, on which they label every right-hand page with A, then B, then C, etc. to Z. When an interesting word comes up and the kids say, "What does that mean?", you can have a real conversation about the word's meaning, and have them put it – right then – into their Personal Dictionary. You remind them that they have to remember that word, use it, and spell it correctly "for the rest of your life, because – if you forget – there it is in your Personal Dictionary!" (which they will get to take home and keep at the end of the school year).
For example, the word "ambivalence" might come up. Someone might be feeling unsure about a classroom choice and you can explain to everyone, "There's a word for how Jamiel feels right now, "ambivalence." It means, 'feeling two opposite things at the same time.' " Have everyone immediately write "ambivalence = feeling two opposite things at the same time" (which you've written on the blackboard) into their Personal Dictionary.
Trust me, a good word like that will be relevant a zillion times on future days. When you ask some student whether she wants to get started writing her paragraph now or finish reading the chapter first and she replies, out loud, smiling: "Well, I'm kind of ambivalent ...", EVERY STUDENT IN THE CLASS WILL REMEMBER THAT WORD ! It's such a useful, terrific, exciting word, and they will all have it (spelled correctly) in their Personal Dictionary for whenever they want to use it and remember how to spell it.
Other words come up in content the class is studying. For Thanksgiving, Squanto is an "intermediary" between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. A study of the events before and after that famous feast will raise the question, whether the breakdown of good feelings into brutal wars between the settlers and the Native Americans was "inevitable." Put "inevitable = It had to happen, unavoidable" on the letter I page below "intermediary."
Later, when two kids get into trouble for fighting on the school bus, the question of whether it was "inevitable" after he called your mother a name, that you HAD TO hit him, "Was it inevitable? unavoidable?" – those students will remember (and use) that vocabulary word. You can also congratulate the third student on the bus, who broke up the fight and settled them down, for being such an effective "intermediary."
I was the principal of an urban K-5 school in the Boston Public Schools. Every student, K-5, had a Personal Dictionary which filled up with words they could use and spell correctly, because each word had come up once and their teacher made them put it in their Personal Dictionary. Second grade students who fought on the bus would have "apology" spelled correctly; they could "pledge" their "cooperation" to try to not do it again. They might even feel "remorse" -- put it on the R page with "= feeling sorry for what you did."
Every fifth grader encounters things they feel are unfair. It will be a teachable moment to have them put "grievance = something you think is unfair" into their Personal Dictionaries, because the teacher knows that the Declaration of Independence is coming around in the curriculum later that month. When all your fifth graders easily understand what grievances are, you've built vocabulary development into the "warp and woof" of both the curriculum and daily school life.

Suzanne
Sep 29, 2019 01:19 AM

I love this article! I am a second grade teacher in NC. I find that vocabulary is typically the area that all of my students score lower in! I am in a collaborating teacher group this year and we are researching effective methods of teaching vocabulary. We are working on teaching vocabulary through interactive read alouds. What are your thoughts on this?

Barney Brawer
Sep 29, 2019 01:25 AM

P.S. There is a terrific Grade 3-level book called Donavan's Word Jar by MonaLisa DeGross, about a boy who collects words in a jar. It's a delightful book for elementary students to read. Then bring into the classroom an empty pretzel jar and a stack of 3x5 cards. Any student who comes across an interesting word, at any time, can put write on a card (with what it means -- if they know that) and their own name on the other side of the card.

Then it's always fun for the class to sit with the cards, read them aloud, talk about what they mean - - - and put some of them in their personal dictionaries, so that every student can use that word correctly in the future.

The experience should be fun, the words interesting. The students will discover that when they use an interesting word (above their "grade level") correctly in the outside world, it triggers enormous praise from adults. Our school wrote a book about a little-understood holiday in Boston called Evacuation Day. It happens to fall on March 17, which is the same day as St. Patrick's Day. Many people in Boston assume it is a fake holiday, allowing Boston to close schools and city offices on St. Patrick's Day. But, in fact, Evacuation Day was an established holiday long before the Irish immigrants arrived in Boston in large numbers. It happened on the hill behind our school. When a first grader understands the word "evacuation" and uses it correctly in conversation, that child typically receives enormous praise from adults who overhear the conversation. It's a very fancy word for a 6 or 7 year old to know and use correctly in conversation. The experience creates great incentive for the student to learn and use correctly another fancy word. Donavan's Word Jar will get them started. Filling the jar in your own classroom will keep getting more and more interesting. The praise from safe strangers -- e.g., "The lady at the dentist's office told me I'm a very intelligent young man!" -- is a reward that students remember for a long time, and are eager to repeat.

Similarly, a Grade 1 student read, in a book about ocean animals, that seahorse mothers lay 1,500 eggs at one time. She wrote a story about a little girl seahorse who "just wanted to be alone. She had 1,500 siblings." In her Personal Dictionary, someone had given her that word. She had written it on her S page: siblings = brothers and sisters. Every child or adult who read her story about the seahorse who "just wanted to be alone" because of her "1,500 siblings" laughed spontaneously and said, "What a terrific sentence!" A terrific reinforcement for this first grader to discover, over and over, the joy of being a writer and the related joy of knowing and using interesting vocabulary, correctly.

Barney Brawer
Sep 29, 2019 01:30 AM

Oops! "put it" and "write it" combined in my brain as the "put write" typo above. Sorry.

Gretchen
Sep 29, 2019 02:51 AM

Barney,
I love that idea about the word jar! We have nine weeks exams coming up, and I think we may read that book and set it up after our tests! Thanks for sharing that!

Gordon Dobie
Sep 29, 2019 04:14 AM

Thank you for a very interesting and helpful article, Mr. Shanahan.

I teach ELLs, so I would add a mother-tongue equivalent to your list of nine. For my ELLs I have just started getting them think of or find out what their new word rhymes with. My kids think these two actions are really helpful.

Your point about concepts has really got me thinking about helping students learn visual and aural descriptive language like "to shimmer" or "a grating voice". This kind of vocabulary comes up a lot in literature, and writers assume we readers know these terms. I am now thinking about how useful popular science or history documentaries would be for learning such language. David Attenborough's series immediately spring to mind.

Thanks again for your thought-provoking post.
G

JK
Sep 29, 2019 12:04 PM

So Marzano’s 6-step process.

Donald Potter
Sep 29, 2019 12:55 PM

For 10 years, I read Charles Major's Bears of Blue River (1900) and the sequel, Uncle Tom Andy Bill (1908) to second graders. The books are young people's adventure stories, loaded with rich vocabulary and sophisticated syntax - and an intriguing plot. The second grade teacher told me every year that she was impressed at the way the students incorporated the rich vocabulary. They all knew the difference between den and din!

Sarah Tantillo
Sep 29, 2019 01:02 PM

Thanks again for a helpful post, Tim. Your points about how to select words are especially useful. I second Barney's comment about having students build a Personal Dictionary. I have some additional suggestions in this post: https://theliteracycookbook.wordpress.com/2018/08/08/techniques-and-tools-for-vocabulary-instruction/

Susan
Sep 29, 2019 01:56 PM

Loved the book suggestion, Donavan’s Word Jar.

Lori Stock
Sep 29, 2019 03:23 PM

Hello – years ago I went to a conference and ended up in the vocabulary workshop. It was fascinating! It opened my eyes to the extra need for vocabulary Instruction at our Title schools.
One thing that was brought up was Reticular Activation. I actually have a huge poster in my classroom that has it listed at the top and every time students hear or see a word that we’ve studied they write their name on that poster. They love it! They are always on the lookout for words, kind of like your word wizard but this academic term is a winner!

Jeannette
Sep 30, 2019 09:35 AM

Some kids can be so limiting when describing something. Everything is nice, mean, pretty, and ugly. We created synonym charts for common words that can be referenced during discussions and / or writing responses. Vocabulary.com is very helpful as a resource. Now kids can add variety to their responses and it’s a time saver. I just ask them what’s another word he/she can use to expand their language that’s new. I also use quizlet to preview words or reinforce words. It has great features including text to speech and during the live game, kids can work in teams and compete. It gets kids talking about words and they love it. Another time saver!

Steve Smith
Oct 07, 2019 02:33 PM

I liked this idea of teaching rich definitions with synonyms and antonyms.

There is a free resource of the top 80 NGSS science vocabulary for each grade here - using this strategy.

Teachers can download the spreadsheet for free: https://www.jognog.com/Teachers.aspx

>>>> content looks like this: >>>
Grade 2 Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 3 Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 4 Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 5 Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 6-8 Life Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 6-8 Physical Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 6-8 Earth and Space Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 6-8 Technology/Engineering Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 9-12 Life Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 9-12 Physical Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 9-12 Earth and Space Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 9-12 Technology/Engineering Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80

Steve Smith
Oct 07, 2019 02:33 PM

I liked this idea of teaching rich definitions with synonyms and antonyms.

There is a free resource of the top 80 NGSS science vocabulary for each grade here - using this strategy.

Teachers can download the spreadsheet for free: https://www.jognog.com/Teachers.aspx

>>>> content looks like this: >>>
Grade 2 Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 3 Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 4 Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 5 Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 6-8 Life Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 6-8 Physical Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 6-8 Earth and Space Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 6-8 Technology/Engineering Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 9-12 Life Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 9-12 Physical Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 9-12 Earth and Space Science Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80
Grade 9-12 Technology/Engineering Download Play in JogNog: 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80

Patrick Manyak
Oct 15, 2019 12:03 PM

Thanks again, Tim, for another useful post. I tend to start any discussion on vocab instruction by stressing that if there is anything that deserves/needs to be taught consistently across the school grades, it is vocabulary. Given the large number of words that students need to know, the sizeable gap between students with higher and lower levels of vocab knowledge, and the incremental nature of vocab growth, to me vocabulary is the quintessential "school-wide" task. I often say it this way, "Even an exceptional vocabulary teacher simply cannot make the kind of difference in vocabulary development in one year that many students' need." Thus, I think that a great prequel for the discussion of pedagogy is... "How do we get a whole school on board in terms of making a serious commitment to robust vocabulary instruction?" If this comes to pass, it multiplies the effect of identifying those effective pedagogical approaches, as students will benefit from them over numerous years and not just with an individual teacher. Next, I believe that it pays to identify a framework that will result in multifaceted vocabulary instruction. It is clear that students must learn many more words than we could ever teach explicitly. Consequently, instruction should create multiple pathways to and strategies for developing vocabulary knowledge. We have used a simple framework for such instruction in several long-term research projects that targets "three dimensions of vocabulary instruction": quality, quantity, and strategy. In short, the quality component stands for intensive instruction of a limited number of carefully selected target words, the quantity component represents brief but intentional instruction of larger sets of related words, and the strategy component refers to instruction that equips students to be independent word learners. One thing that we have found is that implementing this kind of multifaceted instruction effectively weaves vocabulary teaching and learning into a variety of subject areas and instructional contexts throughout the school day. As a result, students can't help but realize that word learning is very important. One highly effective teacher, whose classes over three years time, averaged 3 years growth in general vocab knowledge in one academic year (as measured by the Gates-MacGinitie Vocabulary Subtest) said it this way, "We are, from day one, always teaching new words, noticing words in our reading texts, thinking about the perfect words to describe characters, writing about important words in social studies, making charts of prefix-family words. The kids get it: Learning vocabulary is important! And, they start to feel like experts in vocabulary very quickly. I’ve learned that when you teach vocabulary intensively, it pays off exponentially in terms of that word-conscious classroom."

I hope that these thoughts are helpful extensions of Tim's more practical pedagogical points. Based on observational research of vocab instruction in classrooms, this is definitely an area where many schools and teachers can do better. And, encouragingly, we have found that when teachers do start to "step up their game" in terms of vocab instruction, it creates the proverbial "snowball effect": They find more and more good ways to weave vocabulary into the day and students also develop increasing interest in and enthusiasm for words.

Benita
Oct 20, 2019 10:15 AM

Hi, I am a year 5 teacher (9-10 year olds) in the UK, based on the edge of south east London in a an area of high deprivation and mobility. I found this article and blog really useful. I am the English subject leader for our school and I am always looking at ways of improving pupils understanding of texts and love of reading. We are currently using a mix of Reciprocal Reading and Reading Reconsidered/AIR reading approaches. I am looking to make reading more consistent across year groups and in so doing improve teacher subject knowledge and skills. I am currently focusing on strategies than can be used in our daily 20 min reading slots to further encourage reader accountability and independent application of skills. Thank you again to all who posted in the blog, it was really helpful reading.

Lydia Wasson
Nov 15, 2019 12:03 PM

Excellent article but I cannot use the method you explained because I teach medical vocabulary and the medical words only have one meaning.

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Five Things Every Teacher Should Know about Vocabulary Instruction

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