Explicit vocabulary instruction across grades and subjects
I have written previously, but rather generally, about how to approach vocabulary instruction. I presented quite a few times last year on various aspects of vocabulary instruction. In this post I want to pull all of that content together, and dig deeper into how we might plan and deliver vocabulary lessons. The perfect medium for doing so is the frequently utilised, but rarely capitalised, read-aloud or shared reading lesson, so that is what I will focus on.
Why should we have a particular focus on vocabulary?
“A large and rich vocabulary is the hallmark of an educated individual. Indeed, a large vocabulary repertoire facilitates becoming an educated person to the extent that vocabulary knowledge is strongly related to reading proficiency in particular and school achievement in general.” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2013, p.1)
Vocabulary, along with phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension, is one of the five keys to reading development. This has been well documented for more than twenty years. The more words you know, the more words you will understand when reading (assuming word recognition has developed), which contributes to the overall process (and product) of reading comprehension. The place of vocabulary in reading comprehension is captured in this quote:
“Reading comprehension is a notoriously complex and knotty construct. It is influenced by multiple sources of variation at the level of text, activity and purpose for reading, as well as by individual skills related to knowledge of the linguistic system, general knowledge and word-level processes. Within this complex picture, vocabulary knowledge is recognised as the lynchpin of reading comprehension, the ‘central connection point between the word identification system and the comprehension system’ (Perfetti & Stafura, 2014, p.24).” (Crosson et al, 2020, p.3)
What is this quote telling us? After a student reads the word through word reading (decoding) skills, ascertaining word meaning is the next critical step. If we can't comprehend individual word meanings, we can forget about being able to read for meaning at a sentence or paragraph level, and beyond that. Students who struggle with vocabulary knowledge tend to read slowly, word by word, rather that developing that fluency that comes through the automaticity and reciprocity of well developed word level reading and meaning making.
It is important to note that students with reading comprehension difficulties benefit even more from vocabulary instruction.
“...vocabulary training does increase comprehension for all students. In addition, students identified as having reading problems made more than three times the gains than students with no indicated reading problem. This pattern, however, was not the same with the vocabulary outcomes. Students with reading difficulties made equivalent gains in vocabulary knowledge as those without.” (Elleman et al, 2009, p.34).
This study demonstrated that students with reading comprehension problems and students without reading comprehension problems made the same progress in terms of vocabulary knowledge, but the students with reading comprehension problems made three times the gains when it came to reading comprehension overall. Why? Learning words unlocked or allowed for the activation of higher order meaning making, which their peers were already able to do. Vocabulary is the access point to reading for meaning.
In sum, the purposes of our vocabulary instruction are to develop student word knowledge but also to affect reading comprehension overall. In my view we should strive to increase the breadth and depth of students' word knowledge, aiming to increase:
the number of words they can understand and use when listening and speaking academically and socially
the number of words they can analyse, interpret, reflect on, and understand when reading
the number of words they can use in their writing to argue, connect, describe, evoke, and explain
How is vocabulary often taught in the context of read-alouds?
The literature is sparse, but there are a few studies that describe what we might see if we were to observe vocabulary instruction in the classroom, in the context of a read-aloud lesson. One of the studies I use to begin conversations with educators and schools was completed by Kindle (2009). She observed teachers for four sessions a week over a period of six weeks, and documented everything that they did during read-aloud lessons, with a particular focus on how they provided vocabulary instruction. This is what she found.
Three levels of instruction
Incidental - this involved the teacher infusing a word into the discussion before, during or after reading with no direct teaching
Embedded - this involved attention to word meaning with fewer than 4 teacher-student exchanges
Focussed - this involved the teacher leading a discussion about word meaning but teacher-student exchanges varied in length (the range was 4-25)
Nine instructional strategies (with some examples I have created of what this might look like)
Questioning - "Can anyone tell me what this word means?" or "Does anyone know the meaning of __________ ?"
Providing a definition - "It means _________ ."
Providing a synonym - "Another word for this is _________ ."
Providing an example - "An example of this is __________ ."
Clarifying or correcting a student response - "Yes, but ________ ."
Adding to a student generated definition - "Yes, and ________ ."
Labelling - "It's ____ , and ____ , and ____ ."
Imagery - "It's like ________ ." "Can you picture ________"
Morphological analysis - analysing meaningful parts of whole words to figure out the individual and collective meaning (e.g. un - touch - able)
Kindle (2009) observed a lot of practice variation, and found that most of these instructional approaches and strategies did not go far enough. This is what she concluded about vocabulary instruction within read-aloud lessons:
“Read-alouds are instructional events and require the same advanced planning as any other lesson.” (Kindle, 2009, p.209)
What do we know about incidental versus direct and explicit approaches to vocabulary instruction?
There is a place for both (e.g. National Reading Panel, 2005, p.25) but:
A single contact with a word will rarely lead to a student understanding and retaining a word’s meaning (Nagy et al, 1987; Beck et al, 2013). Students need multiple exposures in multiple contexts in order to develop rich word knowledge.
Incidental instruction tends to be equated with contextually appropriate but superficial knowledge (students are able to comprehend it now in context but they probably will not be able to later independently)
Direct and explicit instruction tends to lead to deeper word knowledge (students are able to comprehend it now and later)
Lower progress readers derive even less benefit from incidental approaches (Biemiller, 2001)
The question I like to use to prompt us to think more about the what and the how is:
Through my vocabulary instruction, am I facilitating comprehension in this moment only, or word learning for comprehension now and later?
Adult mediation before, during, or even after reading to clarify a word meaning to facilitate reading comprehension is not the same as vocabulary instruction (word learning). These are two goals to address separately. Intervening to achieve a comprehension goal is about providing clarification in the moment while achieving a word learning goal requires explicit teaching, elaboration, and practice, for the future retrieval and application. One is about performance (information is in my fragile working memory; I have it for now for what I need to do now), and one is about learning (information is in long-term memory; I can access it whenever I want or need to). For more on performance versus learning, I suggest reading a recent paper by Soderstrom and Bjork (2015).
What is robust vocabulary instruction?
“A robust approach to vocabulary involves directly explaining the meanings of words along with thought-provoking, playful, and interactive follow-up.” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2013, p.3)
When teaching vocabulary, it seems that we often underestimate just how much instructional time and effort is required. When I talk about robust instruction, I am referring to the Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2013) definition above. It is a direct approach to vocabulary instruction. It has been demonstrated to result in deep word learning, which is significant enough to improve reading comprehension as well.
The teacher or interventionist selects words and plans lessons ahead of time.
They make meanings explicit and clear using student friendly explanations.
They get students actively involved in thinking about and using the meanings in a variety of ways immediately after the text has been read.
They review and expand upon what has been taught a number of times in speaking, reading and writing tasks.
Which words to teach and why
These words are common, everyday words (cat, eat, house). They are typically naturally acquired, so explicit teaching is not required. There are times when we may need to focus on Tier 1 words, for example if a student is learning English as an Additional Language and has very few Tier 1 words in their lexicon, or if a student has a Language Disorder or Developmental Language Disorder, but this is usually not the focus of whole-class instruction.
These words are general academic words, common in written language (analyse, precede, auspicious). They typically require explicit instruction. Why? Students will not just pick them up in everyday spoken language because we don not use them very much. Without Tier 2 words students will generally struggle to move from using everyday spoken language to becoming a literate language user. A barrier exists between everyday spoken and written (academic/book) language, and academic success tends to be more likely when students cross this so called ‘lexical bar’ (Corson, 1985;1995).
Additionally, written meaning and context, and the sophisticated vocabulary of written language is far harder to decipher than oral meaning and context due to the absence of verbal and nonverbal cues that we use when speaking, and the words are more abstract and less imageable. Students are therefore less likely to learn word meanings well just through reading them.
Tier 2 words are frequent in text. We have approximately 2000 high frequency words that make up about 80% of what we read in text (Nation, 2001; Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2008). The majority of the remaining 20% are Tier 2 words. We can easily see that it would be quite hard for a student to read accurately and fluently for word, sentence of paragraph meaning if they had to stop to figure out the meaning of every fifth word.
Hayes and Ahrens (1988) compared words present in spoken language and written language. They found in adult conversations there were about 17 rare (or more abstract) words per 1000 words spoken, while there were about 30 rare words in children’s books and about 52 in adult books, per 1000 words written. We must teach students the vocabulary of text, and that is precisely the purpose of Tier 2 vocabulary instruction.
These words are specific academic words that belong to a domain or discipline (epidermis, multiplication, species, isotope). They are common in domain specific texts and subject specific content and students benefit from explicit instruction.
It is important for students to understand the key terms used in each area of study. This contributes to the development of domain specific background knowledge. Teaching Tier 3 vocabulary is therefore teaching discipline knowledge.
Planning and conducting a lesson
This section will not cover how to conduct the read-aloud, shared reading, or independent reading component of the lesson. I am running a workshop on the what, why and how of reading and discussing text daily in May if you are interested in knowing more. I will likely cover suggestions for how to plan and conduct the actual reading component in a future blogpost too.
This section focuses primarily on lesson preparation, and then what we do after reading and discussion have concluded.
Step 1. Choose the text
I won't focus too much on this aspect in this blogpost. I do suggest curriculum mapping across at least English, Humanities, Mathematics, and Science, in order to develop:
A Reading Spine (core texts that matter for building reading comprehension and knowledge; the choices need to be intentional and sequential)
A vocabulary scope and sequence/curriculum (mapping words to units of study/texts)
Some key considerations:
In primary school, read harder texts/texts that they can't read well themselves
Read more nonfiction
Do not transition to independent reading too soon (there is no rush)
The texts you select, regardless of your subject area, are as important as how you teach them (carefully consider both aspects)
Don’t rely on levelling systems to determine year/grade level texts as they can be inaccurate/misleading
Expose students to the five plagues of reading comprehension as outlined by Lemov, Driggs and Woolway (2016)
Expose students to a range of text forms (reports, articles, poetry etcetera) and genres
Step 2. Choose the words
Choose Tier 2 words from informational and narrative texts:
with academic and social utility or words that have mileage (they need to be useful)
that they can conceptually understand
that they won’t come across in everyday spoken language
that are more abstract (not concrete) with low(er) imageability
that are more complex and difficult to learn through incidental exposure
How many words? Beck et al (2013) suggest ~2-3 per book in the early years. In the primary years ~5 words per week and in the secondary years ~10 words per week can be quite realistic.
If books in the early years don’t offer up good Tier 2 candidates, use the ideas expressed in the book or Tier 1 words to generate Tier 2 words to teach (Beck et al, 2013). For example, if the protagonist was sad, this is a great opportunity to teach a word like 'despondent'. If they were happy, we may choose to teach 'elated'.
For informational texts, in addition to Tier 2 words, choose Tier 3 words that are:
Key to understanding the text and/or the topic
e.g. integer, coefficient, reactant, precipitant, solubility, anaerobic, genome
Consider using wordlists to help guide you in your word choices when developing a vocabulary scope and sequence for units of study. For example, The Academic Wordlist (Coxhead, 2000) provides us with 3000 Tier 2 words that occur commonly in texts. Coxhead has sorted these words into a range of helpful groups, like 570 headwords (word families) and 10 frequency lists (from most to least frequently occurring in text).
Here is an example of a basic planning document for a vocabulary scope and sequence. It obviously requires some work in reviewing the context and texts for each unit of study and selecting the words you feel are most useful for students in your context. Planning vocabulary instruction this way is a great way of ensuring we are growing the depth and breadth of word knowledge over the years.
If you want to look at some examples of units that can give you a sense of this level of planning and sequencing, take a look at some Core Knowledge Foundation Curriculum units.
Step 3. Plan the lesson
Read the text and plan the reading comprehension aspect of the lesson or unit.
Prepare student friendly explanations for the words you have chosen following these key steps:
Look up the word in a few different dictionaries online or glossaries in informational texts. .
Consider the definitions from the learner’s point of view, based on their age/stage. We are trying to explain the word’s meaning rather than giving them the definition. There is a difference.
Consider how you would characterise/frame the word so the meaning is clear.
Consider everyday language that you can use to create the explanation.
Create the student friendly explanation ensuring the meaning is clear and explicit. Scripts can be very useful here.
Step 4. Deliver the lesson
Pre-reading and lesson planning (including vocabulary selection) have already taken place.
Conduct the first part of the lesson:
Read the text, which can be as a read-aloud, through shared reading or independent reading. Embed bursts of close reading, question generation, and writing.
Use initial questions (open questions that invite description or explanation about text ideas) and follow up questions (questions designed to scaffold students’ thinking and foster development and elaboration of ideas) throughout.
Students are active participants in teacher-led purposeful discussions about the text ideas afterward.
The components I want to talk about in this post are what comes next:
1. Introduce the words and student friendly explanations.
2. Solidify meaning as soon as the text has been read.
3. Take the words beyond the context of the text.
4. Questions, reasons and examples.
5. Get students to make choices about the words.
6. Get students to use all of the words.
7. Get students to use the words in their writing.
Most of these instructional ideas and lesson components come from the work of Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2013), in their brilliant book, 'Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction.' I recommend this book as a starting point to anyone considering the ways in which they can make their vocabulary instruction more explicit and intentional.
Step 4.1: Introduce the words and student friendly explanations (based on Beck et al, 2013).
There is no need to introduce the word beforehand if you are reading together (i.e. no pre-teaching).
As an alternative to pre-teaching words that are disruptive to reading comprehension, you can provide a student-friendly explanation in the moment that the word is encountered when reading and move on.
Once the book has been read and purposeful text discussion has concluded, introduce each word and their student friendly explanations.
We want students to encounter the word first in the context of the text and meaning will be introduced and elaborated upon afterward. There are times you may want to introduce a word before it is read, especially with older readers, in order for it to be semantically available to them when they read. That is, only if you feel it will be disruptive to reading comprehension if they don’t know its meaning ahead of time. Words that relate to really key concepts, themes or ideas can and should be taught before reading. It is important that we remember that the purpose of pre-teaching is to ensure those words don’t get in the way of reading comprehension during the text. Pre-teaching is not very often or at all about word learning. It is about facilitating reading comprehension. Word learning requires a lot more effort than pre-teaching.
Pre-teaching can also come with some risks. Elaborated attention to meanings in a range of contexts before the story can distract and/or mislead students. It is usually preferable for students to encounter the new vocabulary in the context of the text. That is, decontextualised word learning BEFORE reading the text, especially for a number of words can lead to the students confusing the meanings of the words (Beck et al, 2013).
So, we are not pre-teaching to teach word meanings, we are pre-teaching to facilitate reading comprehension in the moment.
Step 4.2: Solidify meaning as soon as the text has been read (based on Beck et al, 2013).
Once you have provided student friendly explanations, get students to associate the new words with words or phrases you present. Get them to explain their reasoning. They should always be expected to justify their choices. Cold calling works well.
e.g. If I had taught ‘shuddered’, ‘hurled’ and ‘compel’, I could ask, “Which word goes with threw?”
Describe a time when you…
Get students to associate the word with a range of contexts from their own experience so they can see it being of personal use, which boosts the chance of them wanting to use it.
e.g. If I had taught the word, ‘compel’, I could ask the students to “Describe a time when you might compel someone.”
Which would you rather? When/how/why might you?
Ask a range of questions about the words that have been taught.
e.g. If I had taught ‘encounter’, I could ask the students, “Would you rather encounter a grumpy parent or grumpy sibling?” (again, rationales are essential)
This section requires some preparation as well, for examples, synonyms, phrases and questions.
Step 4.3: Take the words beyond the context of the text.
Provide extended examples of the word meanings in a range of contexts, so the students don't only develop context-bound understandings of the words.
E.g. If I had taught the word meaning for ‘dazzling’ and the context was that in the story, Sylvia had dazzling teeth, I would want to make sure I gave other examples that weren’t about teeth or necessarily about vivid colours.:
Performance of an athlete or debating team member
Art on display
Step 4.4: Questions, reasons and examples (based on Beck et al, 2013)
I have created a script to help me introduce this activity. “I am going to ask you some questions about the words we have learned. I want you to use reasons or examples in your responses.”
E.g. Which of these three things is impressive? Tell me why or why not. [list three things]
E.g. Which of these three things is an example of solubility? Tell me why or why not. [list three things]
E.g. What is something you could do to encourage your peer? Why? What are some of the reasons why we might encourage our peers?
E.g. If you are holding a baby, you need to do it carefully. Why? What are some other things that you need to do carefully?
Step 4.5: Get students to make choices about the words (based on Beck et al, 2013).
Again, I have created a script to help me to introduce this task. “I’m going to say some things. I want you to tell me if they are examples of the word we are focusing on or not. If they are examples of the word, I want you to say that word. If they are not examples, you don’t need to say anything.”
The word is jubilant. Say jubilant if any of the things I say would mean someone was jubilant.
Sitting on a chair
Winning the netball match
Washing the dishes
Becoming school captain
If you are using Explicit Direct Instruction or Teach Like a Champion techniques, you can incorporate full sentence answers here. It is a good expectation to have across the board anyway.
Step 4.6: Get students to use all of the words (based on Beck et al, 2013).
My script: “We have learned three words today. Those words were ________ , ________ and ________. I want us to think about them some more now before we finish the lesson.”
Relating words (ask students to share ways in which the words are/could be related using full sentences)
Sentences (ask a question using more than one of the target words in the question)
E.g. “Would you prefer to disturb a sleeping dog or ferocious wolf? Why?”
Choices (ask a question using an example and get students to choose between two target words in their answer)
E.g. “If you pack your bag the night before school, would that be sensible or complicated?”
Students create their own examples (ask a question to which they must respond with a detailed explanation/justification)
E.g. “If I told you I was feeling radiant, what might have happened?”
E.g. “Why might someone be walking cautiously ?”
Step 4.7: Using The Writing Revolution (Hochman & Wexler, 2017)
We know writing about what you have read about improves reading comprehension (Graham & Hebert, 2011), so we don't want to forget writing instruction for vocabulary and reading comprehension development.
Here are my four favourite sentence-level TWR activities, and the ways I infuse vocabulary into them.
1. Sentence stems with because, but, so, providing the target vocabulary in the stems:
Emina felt enraged because _____________
Emina felt enraged, but __________________
Emina felt enraged, so ___________________
Emina was perplexed because ____________
Emina was perplexed, but _________________
Emina was perplexed, so __________________
The recession was devastating because ________________
The recession was devastating, but _____________________
The recession was devastating, so ______________________
2. Sentence types, providing a list of words they need to include in their sentence:
Topic: Tropical cyclones
Vocabulary: debris (S), forecasts (Q), catastrophic (E), thoroughly (C)
S: Tropical cyclones leave debris behind.
Q: Who forecasts tropical cyclones in Australia?
E: Tropical cyclones are catastrophic! Tropical cyclones are thoroughly catastrophic!
C: Prepare thoroughly for this tropical cyclone.
3. Sentence kernels and sentence expansion, with target words provided for 'how':
Kernel: Emina presented.
Vocabulary: enthusiastically, halfheartedly, coldly, speedily
Expanded sentence: ____________________________________
On Friday at 2PM Emina presented enthusiastically on Zoom.
4. Appositives, with a list of taught words, and students must choose one to include in their appositive:
Vocabulary: passionate, driven, ambitious
Read Ballarat, ________________ , is regional Victoria’s most influential literacy community of practice.
a group for educators who are passionate about reading instruction
Thank you to Read Ballarat for letting me try this one out with them!
Step 5. Retrieval practice
Review is essential to stimulating long-term learning and retention of vocabulary (Beck, Perfetti & McKeown, 1982).
Review is often absent or insufficient (Beck & McKeown, 2005) which leads to students knowing the word now (performance) but not later (learning).
Below I have pasted two teach a review models. The first is for primary school and the second is for secondary school. They are not perfect, but they may be of use to start initial thinking and planning about how to include review in your teaching of vocabulary. Ensure you keep a list of words taught each lesson or each week, so this model can be effective.
Step 6. Assessment and monitoring
Standardised assessments have their limitations.
McKeown et al (1985) compared definitional and robust approach to instruction, and found that on MCQ, a high number of encounters with the words impacted results, but the type of instruction did not. However, on comprehension tests, the type of instruction mattered, along with the number of encounters. Assessment design therefore matters. We need to make sure we are assessing our impact on future reading comprehension, not just shallow assessment of their word knowledge e.g. their capacity to choose a synonym.
With thanks to Beck et al (2013), we have some helpful suggestions. We can:
1. Present similarly featured examples and non-examples of a word (students justify their choices)
e.g. ‘mention’: My next door neighbour once told me that she had lived in Sydney; My next door neighbour is always talking about when she lived in Sydney.
"Which is the correct use and why?"
2. Have students create examples of words taught (e.g. tell me about a time that you were astonished ; describe an event that could make someone feel perplexed; describe something that you find scrumptious and why it is scrumptious to you?)
3. Provide semantically similar word pairs (e.g. exotic and unique; aerobic and anaerobic) and have students explain what is similar and what is different about the two.
4. Ask contextual interpretation questions:
e.g. When Sarah and I arrived at Emina’s door, I had to encourage Sarah to knock on the door. How do you think Sarah felt about seeing Emina? Why?
e.g. James told me he was a novice, but when I saw him teaching vocabulary I knew he had been kidding. What do you think James’ vocabulary instruction was like? Why?
5. Provide sentence completion tasks (written) e.g. ten target words/ten sentences
6. Use MCQ and true/false traditional formats but give them some thought. Don't make the foils too different (a student with shallow knowledge of the target word could get it right) and don't make the foils to similar (students will really struggle to choose the correct answer, even though they know what the target word means).
Adding deeper word study
Etymology – the study of word origins
teach students that there are Anglo-Saxon (often Tier 1), Greek (often Tier 3) and Latin (often Tier 2) roots
sound-letter relationships in words can be influenced based on word origin (e.g. cello in Italian; chef in French)
explicitly teach the most common roots in written language (develop a scope and sequence)
Morphology – the study of the internal structure of words
teach students how to look for units of meaning within words
teach students to segment words into root/base words and affixes
explicitly teach the most common prefixes and suffixes (develop a scope and sequence)
“Students who understand how words are formed by combining prefixes, suffixes, and roots tend to have larger vocabularies and better reading comprehension than peers without such knowledge and skills (Prince, 2009).” (Stowe, 2021, p.1)
Link this type of instruction to your spelling instruction (phonology, orthography and morphology components). Note, spelling ability can impact word choice when writing (Sumer et al, 2016). If students know the word but don't know how to spell the word, they are unlikely to use it in their written work.
Robust (explicit, extended) vocabulary instruction is a powerful tool for improving reading comprehension, writing, spoken language, and academic achievement more broadly.
It is likely to be most effective when embedded across the curriculum in a structured and planned manner.
“Instruction that succeeded in affecting comprehension included three features: more than several exposures to each word, both definitional and contextual information, and engagement of students in active, or deep, processing.” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2008, p.4)
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2008). Creating robust vocabulary: Frequently asked questions and extended examples (Vol. 10). Guilford Press.
Biemiller, A. (2010). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill SRA.
Henry, M. (2010). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding and spelling instruction. Brookes Publishing Co.
Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher's manual. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Parsons, S., & Branagan, A. (2017). Word Aware: Teaching vocabulary across the day, across the curriculum. Routledge.
Quigley, A. (2018). Closing the vocabulary gap. Taylor and Francis.
Raskinski, T., Padak, N., Newton, R. & Newton, E. (2020). Building vocabulary with Greek and Latin roots: A professional guide to word knowledge and vocabulary development. Shell Education.