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Effective Vocabulary Instruction (The Council Chronicle, March 2007)

“The number one way to improve vocabulary is to increase reading.”

by Lorna Collier

When Marina Michalski began teaching seven years ago, she taught vocabulary the same way she’d learned it herself: through word lists, passed out to students with instructions to look up definitions and use the words in sentences.

As time passed, Michalski, a seventh-grade teacher at South Junior High School in Anaheim, California, saw that these exercises weren’t working to promote retention of vocabulary words.

“The students were bored,” she says. “I stopped using them.” Instead, she turned to a variety of other strategies, including teacher read alouds and word walls, to make new words memorable.

Michalski’s experience confirms research by vocabulary experts, who say rote memorization of word lists—especially lists of random words with no relevance to content—is the least effective way to teach vocabulary. Instead, say experts, teachers need to carefully choose which words students most need to know, with a focus on content-based academic vocabulary and teaching words in context, and then engage them in meaningful and varied activities to help cement these words into long-term memory.

“There’s a lot more emphasis today on academic vocabulary than there has been in the past,” says Janet Allen, a Florida-based educational consultant and author, and past contributor of the “Word Market” column for the NCTE journal Voices from the Middle.

Allen defines academic vocabulary as words used across content areas, not everyday words a student might pick up in wide reading or technical terms specific to one subject. Instead, they are words that might have multiple meanings depending on the subject, and that often can’t be picked up through context.

Examples include words and phrases such as “process,” “excerpt,” “cause and effect,” and “compare and contrast.” Too often, says Allen, teachers assume students know these words and don’t teach them. Yet Allen found while preparing state assessment tests that often children were struggling because they didn’t understand the vocabulary of the questions.

More recently, says Allen, “I interviewed some middle school students and very few understood what it meant to compare or contrast something.”

Another challenge for students: academic vocabulary words can have different meanings depending on context, notes Doug Fisher, professor of education at San Diego State University and a consultant with NCTE’s Consulting Network (

“Take the word ‘expression,’” says Fisher. “The English teacher talks about a character’s facial expression—and then the very next period, the student is asked to ‘solve the expression’ in math. If you know only one meaning of ‘expression,’ it’s not going to work.”

Allen suggests English and content-area teachers coordinate a list of academic vocabulary words, leaving the specialized content words to be taught by content teachers.

Which Words to Teach?

If academic vocabulary words are the most important type of words to teach, that still leaves teachers unsure of which specific words to focus limited class time upon.

“That’s the big debate,” says Fisher. “Word selection is really important.”

Fisher suggests teachers can identify words students should know by considering the following criteria: whether the word is critical to understanding the text; whether the word is likely to be repeated during the school year; whether the word will be used in other subject areas; and whether students can figure the word out by themselves using contextual or structural analysis.

Teachers also must be careful not to overload their students with too many words at once, Fisher says. They must prioritize the words their students will encounter, picking which they need to fully examine, and which can be simply defined.

“If it’s something the students don’t have background knowledge in, I will do a preview before we read,” says Michalski. But, she says, if they are reading a text that contains technical terms “they probably won’t need to know for the rest of their lives,” she will simply stop and define the word, then move on.

Michalski also doesn’t assign long lists of words to be learned before a student can read a passage, choosing instead to focus on the most significant. Otherwise, she says, “it makes them feel like, ‘If I’m going to have to learn 50 words, I’m not going to want to read this.’”

Key Elements in Vocabulary Instruction

Despite research showing its ineffectiveness, “many teachers still rely on word lists, having children look up definitions,” says Allen. However, this doesn’t work, because in order for the brain to store something new in permanent memory, it has to connect it to something else that is already known.

“If you just look up a word and write the definition down, it doesn’t make any sense” to the brain’s memory system, says Allen. “There has to be that connection in the brain; you have to be able to hook it to something students already know.”

Integration—showing how the word is related to “the known”—is one of the key elements in effective vocabulary instruction, says Allen. Repetition is another.“Children or adults need to see and hear a word in meaningful context multiple times in order to know the word, somewhere between 10 and 15 times,” says Allen. “Some words are so unique and interesting that it’s fewer, but an average number is around 10 times.” Words also must be used right away “to get lodged in your permanent memory.”

Reading is perhaps the most important element in vocabulary instruction. “The number one way to improve vocabulary is to increase reading,” both in volume and diversity, says Allen, “so that’s over and under everything else that a teacher would do in the classroom.”

Teachers should both read aloud to their students—yes, even in high school—and have reading time in class.

Fisher suggests “five-minute, content-specific read alouds, where the teacher talks through his or her own understanding.”

“When a teacher does a really good read aloud, he pauses and interacts and talks about it,” says Fisher. “The teacher will say, ‘Look at this interesting word.’ For English language learners and struggling readers and kids who aren’t really sure how to read academically, that kind of teacher modeling is really important. They think, ‘Oh, that’s how you solved the word you didn’t know—you used context clues or word parts or whatever you did.’”

Effective Strategies to Try

When teachers find effective techniques, they need to be sure to vary them, especially with teenagers, warns Fisher.

Fisher has found in working with high schoolers that teens get bored quickly. “Three weeks of the coolest ‘Vocabulary Jeopardy’ game, and they don’t want to do this anymore. . . . We call it ‘satiating on vocabulary instruction.’ You have to change up the ways in which kids engage fairly often.”

Nonetheless, here are some tried-and-true techniques.

Context Clues and Word Parts

Though Allen notes that context clues when used alone are only reliable one in twenty times, they still can be a useful technique to help students decode unfamiliar words.

“One of the first things I do is show how to figure out the meaning of unknown words through context clues,” says Lynnette Elliott, a ninth-grade English teacher at Timber Creek High School in Orlando, Florida. “We’ll look for word parts we recognize. We’ll read the ‘before’ and ‘after’ words. We’ll look at pictures if it’s an article.”

Another way students can decode words is by knowing suffixes, affixes, and other word parts.

“I’ll put a prefix on the board, like ‘sub,’ and we’ll have a competition to think of words that begin with ‘sub’,” says Elliott.

Word Families

“If you know the word ‘judge,’ then you know ‘judiciary’ and ‘judgmental,’” says Allen, who recommends teaching word families “rather than teaching them as isolated words.”

Graphic Organizers and Word Walls

Graphic organizers, such as concept circles or word sorters, can be effective to directly study words, showing commonalities and differences between groups of words. Similarly, word walls —once only seen in elementary school—are making a reappearance in middle and high school, says Allen, as a way for kids to keep track of new words they encounter.

Allen suggests students also keep “portable word walls”—pages in their notebooks set up like a word wall, which they carry with them from class to class, tracking the words they are learning.

Exit Slips as Assessment Tools

Teachers can use exit slips to see if students are retaining words by telling students to use these words in their slips. This also serves to reinforce the words.

ELL Challenges

Vocabulary instruction is even more difficult for English language learners, who are confronted with having to learn both concepts and language at the same time. And because the language is unfamiliar, they will need to hear words repeated more often for them to sink in, says Allen.

Fisher advocates a five-pronged approach to best help ELL students with vocabulary (outlined in an upcoming NCTE book co-written with Carol Rothenberg and Nancy Frey):

  • wide reading, including instruction in context clues;
  • teacher read alouds;
  • instruction in content vocabulary;
  • instruction in academic vocabulary; and
  • a focus on words of the week, perhaps organized by suffix, prefix, or other common theme.

Another suggestion for Spanish-speaking students, says Michalski, is to use cognates—words with Greco-Roman roots that are more familiar to Spanish speakers, such as “analyze,” “passage,” and “determine.”

Whether with her ELL or regular students, Michalski can tell if her efforts to teach new words have been successful when she sees or hears her students using them spontaneously in speech or writing.

“What worked with [my students], what changed their vocabulary and language usage, is the language I used with them, and what they were reading in class,” says Michalski. “They mimic what they hear and read.”

Lorna Collier is a freelance writer based in northern Illinois.

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