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Professional Development Tutorial: Increasing Vocabulary

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

This tutorial is a sample lesson from a Scholastic Red session on vocabulary development. It is part of a comprehensive course on how to improve student comprehension. When I started teaching, my mentor challenged me to be “the best reading teacher in the world.” My first graders deserved no less. This course has helped me increase my knowledge about best practices. Read on to find out more about the need-to-know research base supporting best practices in vocabulary instruction.

Scholastic Red is an online and in-person research-based professional development program. The outstanding researchers and leaders that make up the Scholastic Red Faculty include Dr. Linda Diamond, Dr. Ted Hasselbring, Phyllis Hunter, Dr. Louisa Moats, Dr. Maryanne Wolf, my colleague at Scholastic Wiley Blevins, and outstanding teachers Laura Robb, Dr. Marilyn Whirry and Betty Tsang.

Part One: Owning Words & Word Knowledge
Part Two: What Words to Teach
Part Three: Model Lesson: Concept Definition Map

Part One: Owning Words & Word Knowledge
“Step right up, step right up — fancy, best-quality words right here,” announced one man in a booming voice… .

“Maybe if I buy some I can learn how to use them,” said Milo eagerly as he began to pick through the words in the stall. Finally he chose three which looked particularly good to him — “quagmire,” “flabbergast,” and “upholstery.” He had no idea what they meant, but they looked very grand and elegant.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norman Juster

“Owning” Words
Wouldn’t it be nice if, like Milo, we could purchase all the words we needed to know at the market? In real life, “owning” a words is a much more complicated exchange. Research shows that we need to encounter a word about 12 times or more before we know it well enough to help us comprehend what we read (McKeown, Beck, Omanson and Pople, 1985). When students have enough encounters with a word, they’ll begin to use it in their writing and speech. That word then becomes a part of their personal vocabulary bank, or “repository.” We’ll focus on how to get students to become “word repositories” rich with vocabulary.

How Many Words Should My Students Know?
By the second grade, students may know anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 words (Graves, Juel, and Graves 1998). As their reading and writing develops, students learn, on average, 3,000 to 4,000 words a year. (Nagy and Anderson, 1984; Nagy and Herman, 1987). If you were able to try to directly teach all of those words, you would have to teach over 20 words a day (Stahl, 1999)! So how do students learn all the words they need to know? The combination of direct instruction and wide reading is a good formula for word learning.

Try the Words Words Words activity from Scholastic Red. This simple lesson illustrates the levels of word knowledge – some words may be immediately recognizable while others are completely unfamiliar.

Ask Yourself

  • Which words did you know immediately? Which ones do you use in speech or writing?
  • Which words did you recognize but had to think about before defining? Would you feel confident enough to use them in conversation or in a paper that your colleagues would read?
  • Were there any words that you just didn’t know?

Levels of Word Knowledge
“Word knowledge” refers to how well you know the meaning of a word. Research shows that there are three kinds of word knowledge:

  • Unknown: the meaning is completely unfamiliar.
  • Acquainted: basic meaning is recognized after some thought.
  • Established: Meaning is easily, rapidly and automatically recognized.
    (Beck, McKeown, and Omanson, 1987)

In the What Words Do You Know? game, you were asked to identify the words you knew into the “Know It” category. These words are already established in your personal vocabulary bank and are the words you would use in conversation and writing. Though it’s enough for students to have a surface understanding of some words in a selection, for most words — students must have this same “established” level of knowledge if they are to understand what they are reading (Nagy, Herman, and Anderson, 1985).

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Part Two: What Words to Teach

School Words
Now that your students are reading subject-specific texts such as science and social studies textbooks, they will encounter many new words that they probably don’t use at home of with their friends. Content area words and academic language are specific to the material your students are reading, and carry most of the meaning in the selection. For example, it would be difficult for students to comprehend a biology textbook without knowing the word organism.

What Words Do I Teach?
Content area words, or conceptually difficult words representing complex concepts not a part of students’ daily lives, should be taught directly (Baumann and Kameenui, 1991; Nagy 1988). Instruction of these words is most meaningful when the definitions are key to understanding the selected text.

How Do I Select Words to Teach?
The following steps may be useful in determining what kinds of content area words to teach:

  1. Identify and list the words in the selection that are likely to be unknown or too difficult for students. Try to limit the list to three to five words at a time.
  2. Print the list of challenging vocabulary words on the board.
  3. Analyze the word-knowledge data provided by students. Based upon this analysis, make a revised list of vocabulary words. You can use these questions to identify the most important words to teach:
    • Is understanding the word important for understanding the selection?
    • Are students able to use context or structural analysis to discover the meaning of the word?
    • Can working with this word be useful in furthering students’ context, structural analysis, or dictionary skills?
    • How useful is this word beyond the current reading selection?
    • Can students list synonyms and antonyms of the word?

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Part Three: Model Lesson: Concept Definition Map
Adapted from Scholastic Red, Improving Reading Comprehension, Grades 3–5

Observe a model best-practice lesson. Betty Tsang is using a Concept Definition Map to deepen the vocabulary knowledge of her students.

Increasing Vocabulary: Concept Definition Map

Motivate and Focus Watch

Set Expectations Watch

Teach / Model Watch

Lesson Plan and Concept Map Worksheets
Would you like to try this in your classroom? You can download Betty’s detailed lesson plan and concept map worksheets for students to use. Now you are ready to turn research into practice in your classroom.

Using a Concept Definition Map: Lesson Plan (PDF)
Using a Concept Definition Map: Teacher Resource (PDF)
Graphic Organizers (PDF)

  • Subjects:
    Vocabulary, Teacher Training and Continuing Education, Communication and the Internet, Educational Technology, Teaching with Technology
  • Skills:
    Vocabulary
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