Teaching Opinion

Response: Vocabulary Instruction Is More Than Giving ‘A List of Words’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 03, 2015 11 min read
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(Today’s post is the second in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

What are the best instructional strategies for vocabulary development?

We started-off in Part One with suggestions from Katie Brown, Jane Fung, Marilee Sprenger and Karen Bromley, and you can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Katie and Marilee about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

Today’s segment highlights commentaries from Camille Blachowicz, Charlene Cobb, Katherine S. McKnight, Nicole Zuerblis and Susan Chenelle.

In addition, you might find my recent piece for the British Council useful: Five Strategies For ELL Vocabulary Instruction.

Response From Camille Blachowicz & Charlene Cobb

Camille Blachowicz is co-director of The Reading Leadership Institute and Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at National Louis University. Charlene Cobb is Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning at East Maine School District in Des Plaines, Illinois. Camille and Charlene recently co-authored No More “Look Up the List” Vocabulary Instruction for Heinemann Publishing:

The best instructional strategies for vocabulary development are grounded in an evidence-based model of vocabulary instruction. As a result of both our research and practice, we understand that vocabulary instruction requires more than simply asking students to look up a list of words, define them, and use them in a sentence. Vocabulary instruction needs to enable students to develop an interest and curiosity about learning words, provide students with rich and varied language experiences, provide instruction on specific words, and teach students strategies for approaching new words. These four components comprise a comprehensive model of vocabulary instruction.

Students develop an interest and curiosity about learning words in classroom environments filled with books, magazines, and word games with opportunities to use them on on a daily basis. Students learn many more words than those that are directly taught through reading widely and deeply on topics of interest, having chances to use new words in discussion and writing, in keeping personal word journals, and in playing with words. We ask teachers to try 3X5---take three minutes a day, 5 days a week to share a word riddle, a pun or a word puzzle. This helps students develop interest and curiosity about word learning making them likely to engage with instruction on specific words and strategies for approaching new words.

Effective instructional strategies for vocabulary are those that are rooted in helping students develop a conceptual understanding of the words they are learning.. There are many evidence-based instructional strategies for teaching specific words. Some that we consistently use include word sorts, knowledge ratings, word maps, and vocabulary frames (Cobb & Blachowicz, 2014). These strategies provide students with opportunities to actively engage with and manipulate words. They can also serve as diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments to giving teachers clues to guide instruction.

Students also need to develop word-learning strategies. This includes teaching the range of context clues, (i.e., definition, synonym, antonym, example) and helping student learn to look around the word (context clues) as well as within the word (word parts) when they are trying to determine the meaning of a new word.

Most importantly, vocabulary instruction needs to be consistent and intentional. Students need multiple opportunities to encounter words in a variety of contexts. Teachers need to embed vocabulary instruction into all subject areas and make time for engaged vocabulary instruction each day.

Response From Katherine S. McKnight

Katherine S. McKnight is an educator, award-winning author, and consultant specializing in adolescent literacy. She is the author of Common Core Literacy for ELA, History/Social Studies, and the Humanities: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge and Common Core Literacy for Math, Science, and Technical Subjects: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter:

Language learning, at its most effective, is active and engaging. It taps into a student’s natural desire to communicate. Passive activities like writing a vocabulary word five times, copying the definition from a dictionary or glossary, and then using it in a sentence quite simply don’t work very well. At their best, those kinds of activities encourage students store personally meaningless words in short-term memory, spit them out on a quiz, and then forget them. In addition, there’s plenty of reason to believe that such brain-numbing work actually teaches students to think they dislike academia in general and our class in particular. And that is enough to break the heart of any teacher!

The fact is, we all need a vocabulary in order to find the perfect word to express a specific thought. It begins when a toddler struggles to ask for a half glass of apple juice in the yellow plastic cup (My goodness, think of all the vocabulary that’s necessary to get that idea across.) and it continues as long as there are new thoughts and ideas to be conveyed.

Vocabulary development, ideally, is a lifelong process. So how, as teachers, can we exploit our students’ need to communicate?

Let them play with language. Encourage it. It might seem counterintuitive, but messing around with language is learning language! You can be sure that the student who says, “The dude was acting all pachyderm on the outside but he was all mollusk on the inside,” knows that pachyderm means thick-skinned and mollusk means soft-bodied!

For those circumstances where long lists of words simply must be learned and memorized, try utilizing organic methods that embrace students’ individuality and encourage their creativity. Personal dictionaries let students record definitions in their own words, with their own illustrations and memorization tricks. Visualization is a particularly powerful tool. Experiment with graphic organizers, hand crafted notebooks, index cards, and even digital tools until you find a style of personal dictionary that works for your class.

I like to use Vocabulary Slides, graphic representations of words that prompt students to use and manipulate new words in a variety of ways. They’re particularly effective when students work in small groups. Remember, language is more naturally learned when using it to communicate!

But the most important way for a teacher to develop students’ vocabulary is by demonstrating his or her own passion for words. As much as possible, use a wide variety of words creatively, precisely, and well. They’ll notice.

Response From Nicole Zuerblis

Nicole Zuerblis is a National Board Teacher certified in Literacy: Reading/Language Arts and a fellow of the National Writing Project. She is a member of ASCD’s 2011 Emerging Leaders class and is currently the K-5 Instructional Coach for Neshaminy School District (PA):

We want students to develop a love of reading, and wide reading will boost their passion, comprehension and vocabulary. There are times when explicit instruction is necessary to further develop vocabulary. We have a responsibility to make effective decisions in how and what words we introduce to students. The ultimate goal in learning is always transfer. It’s easy to lose sight of this, and like vocabulary’s cousin, spelling, assign words for Friday’s test, only to be forgotten or seldom applied. So what words are worth our time (and our students’ time,) and how do we increase the chance of lasting learning? The real key is for students to transfer vocabulary into their spoken and written language.

There are different tiers of words and reasons for learning them. The content specific vocabulary necessary to conduct and describe a science experiment, for example, may be explicitly introduced. It’s not as effective for students to “look up” these words; we can define them together in context. As teachers, we need to structure conversations so that students have opportunities to discuss reading and procedures using these content words. Never underestimate the power of modeling. If we want students to use these words in conversations, we need to use them. It sounds simple, but we need to demonstrate how words are part of our growing academic vocabulary, and that vocabulary doesn’t end at the end of the latest science unit. Here’s where we get the most mileage out of words that can cross curriculum. Words like evidence, derived, process, variable, dominant, and parallel will appear in many contexts and are well worth our time and our students’ time in adding them to our academic vocabulary.

Vocabulary word walls are effective in promoting academic conversations and are an excellent tool for students to use in their writing. These words should be a result of real reading in authentic context, not a pre-purchased list. We can increase the likelihood of students using words by making word walls interactive. Invite students to draw or digitally create a picture to represent each word’s meaning. By letting students create cues to help remember meanings, word walls are even useful for secondary students to illustrate higher level concepts like subsequent. Then, teachers model use of the word wall by referencing it in discussions and promote students’ use as a reference in their speaking and writing.

Our ultimate goal is to encourage transfer of learning, so we must teach students about words. Instead of focusing on long lists of words, carefully choose some to explicitly introduce, but focus instruction on using context and other resources to figure out meanings. Most importantly, model and give students the opportunities to absorb words into their spoken and written vocabulary.

Response From Susan Chenelle

Susan Chenelle is in her seventh year of teaching English and journalism at University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. She is co-author, with Audrey A. Fisch, of the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series from Rowman & Littlefield Education:

The best instructional strategies for vocabulary development are those that support students in mastering new words. Mastery means they can use them fluently when writing and speaking and understand their meaning and purpose when reading and listening. These goals require varied and engaging activities that give students “massive practice” (Moffett) in using them and “promote word consciousness” (Antinarella).

I have borrowed many of the strategies that I use in my classroom from Bringing Words to Life by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan. These activities include asking questions that require students to use the words thoughtfully. For example, “Would you rather be known as preeminent or decadent? Why?” or “Do you expect candor from your friends? Why or why not?”

In accordance with the Common Core State Standards, I have students practice their dictionary skills to define a word and/or determine how a word is being used in a particular context. On other days, I give them sample sentences so that they can practice using context clues. I use fill-in-the-blank questions to reinforce student awareness of various forms of a vocabulary word.

Rigorous and meaningful vocabulary activities can also be fun. The vocabulary skits my students create and perform skits are often quite hilarious, but also allow the class to hear our new words used in various ways in a short timeframe. And the vocabulary squares (Burke) and illustrations (Antinarella) my students create provide visual reminders of word meanings all around my classroom.

To accomplish this, we focus on five high-frequency words per week. We don’t do every type of activity each week; I rotate activities - based on student needs and my instructional goals - in order to reinforce a variety of vocabulary skills on a regular basis and to provide rich, meaningful encounters that support word mastery.

Thanks to Katherine, Camille, Charlene, Nichole and Susan for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ responses in Part Three.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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