How And Why All Teachers Must Teach Vocabulary

Teacher teaches her students vocabulary during class

Being able to both comprehend and write increasingly complex text and participate in oral discourse starts with a knowledge of words. Yet far too many of our students stumble in expressing their thoughts, understanding the written intent of others, or even understanding what is being asked of them in written prompts because they do not have nor are growing in their awareness of vocabulary.

The reasons why our students may lack robust vocabularies are varied. Some students are coming to English as second language learners. Others may have or have not been exposed to a varied vocabulary in their homes. Still, others may be hamstrung by the way we have been teaching reading in our schools: phonics and/or decoding in the early years—the debate still rages—being phased out in favor of specific academic content instruction in middle and high school. I, myself, can think back to my early days of teaching 6th grade when I had a student come into my class the day after they arrived from Vietnam with no English-speaking skills. Although she received push out ELL services, if only I knew then how to better scaffold the learning through language supports, perhaps she might have been able to be more fully present in class.

While we are all literacy teachers, tell that to some middle and high school science, math, and/or social studies teachers and you might be told in return that they teach their subject content not English. Still, how can one teach content well if students do not understand what they are reading? Also, how can students write in full paragraphs if they don’t know words?

Teaching Vocabulary Helps Students Develop Content Knowledge

Teacher teaches a young student vocabulary


Think strategically about how vocabulary might help your students master content-specific standards. As a consultant, I’m always recommending that teachers utilize Harvey Silver’s vocabulary CODE activities. These activities assist students in connecting vocabulary to key concepts, in organizing/categorizing words, in deep processing words, and in exercising the mind through exercise and practice.

While we see word walls in many classrooms these days, which is an excellent strategy that compares words to units of study, we should not stop there. Sadly, this is often the case. Word walls are NOT for classroom decoration only; students need to practice these words intentionally during instruction. One way to do this, for instance, might be to have students describe how a set of three words from the word wall might be related (the three-way tie strategy).

Teachers can also gamify the learning of vocabulary by giving “points” for student use of specific vocabulary within their written responses. I would often give my students a word splash activity at both the beginning and end of a lesson. In this strategy, students are given a writing prompt as well as a series of words to use in their response. Students are then told to use as many words as they can in their response.

Comparing the quality of the response/vocabulary produced at the beginning of the lesson, before instruction, with the same prompt response provided at the end of the lesson can be a brilliant way to check on student growth in understanding during a lesson. Have students used more vocabulary in the second response? Are connections between concepts stronger after instruction than before?

Vocabulary Development Strategies Are For ALL Students

The photo is of the notes taken by a teacher using the 4As protocol while we were reviewing vocabulary CODE strategies.

I recently had the opportunity to present these vocabulary development strategies at a middle/high school workshop. By engaging in a 4As discussion protocol, we were able to surface assumptions made by Mr. Silver in his work, where we agreed, where we argued/or disagreed, and where we might apply his vocabulary development strategies in our own lesson planning.

Several concerns and/or misconceptions emerged, one being that the study of vocabulary is only for students who are underperforming. To be true, studying vocabulary can assist ELLs and other students below mastery to meet learning objectives and, as such, is an excellent scaffold. At the same time, depending on the complexity of the words themselves, vocabulary development strategies can help more advanced students solidify and extend their knowledge of key concepts/themes in their learning.

To bring in higher-order thinking and learning within vocabulary development activities, consider the level of complexity of the words that students are studying. Per the work of Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan, in Bringing Words to Life, we can think of vocabulary as being in three tiers: tier one (everyday words like tree or cat), tier two (school words like analyze or discuss), and tier three words (content-specific words like reformation or reconstruction). I would argue that middle and high schools could consider the academic words that they want the entire school community practicing with students (tier 2) and have this language posted/discussed throughout the school community while teachers could not only be promoting the use of these tier 2 vocabulary words in class but also be working with students to increase their knowledge of specific content vocabulary (tier 3). As an aside, I also use Robert Marzano’s work, Building Academic Vocabulary, with teachers. Most notably, his lists of academic words in each content area.

Making Time For Vocabulary Instruction

Teacher teaches his students vocabulary during class


Teachers in the training also surfaced the question of time. When there is so much to teach, where is the time to front-load all this vocabulary? Consider when it is and is not appropriate to use a vocabulary development strategy with all students at the same time. However, also consider how individual students could practice vocabulary on their own. For instance, I used to always keep blank copies of the Frayer Model available in the classroom so that students could practice vocabulary on an as-needed basis. Students could also be practicing vocabulary at rotating stations as well as completing other tasks if the lesson is planned accordingly. Lastly, just like we do not want all middle/high school teachers giving a test on the same day, confer with teaching colleagues so that the front-loading of vocabulary is staggered across classes.

If you would like additional ideas on how to impact student lives without sacrificing your own, and have a life teaching, check out my quick hack teaching courses here. You can also reach me on LinkedIn.

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