Best Practices in Vocabulary Instruction

concept-18290_640Do you have a list of your favorite words running in your head?  I do. I don’t know why or how it began; I just know there are certain words I enjoy knowing and using such as “impeccable” and “lackadaisical” to name just two.  Apparently, according to those who research vocabulary, this means I exhibit “word consciousness” or a knowledge of and interest in words, and it is what we ultimately want our students to exhibit as well.  I learned about this when I recently researched vocabulary programs and instructional practices.

I don’t think I have to explain why vocabulary is important, but I will. Knowing what words mean and being able to use them enables students to comprehend the speech of others as well as the written material they come into contact with on a daily basis.  We’ve all heard the adage: Students first learn to read and then they read to learn.  Without the ability to understand what is being read, there’s not going to be much learning going on in any subject area.  It’s really that simple.  Since this is true, every teacher – no matter the subject they teach (i.e. not just English teachers) – must play a part in developing students’ vocabularies.

So how do we do this with intent?  I’ve read about a dozen research articles from the last decade or so and mined them for the very best practices in vocabulary instruction.  Some are obvious, others less so. I’ve listed and expounded on them below.

1. Combine direct with indirect instruction.  Direct vocabulary instruction is a must, whether in the form of a traditional vocabulary workbook, an online program, or pulling specific vocabulary words from class readings.  Students can and should learn approximately 400 words per year through such direct, explicit teaching (although they should learn many more words than that per year in total). Indirect instruction, however, is just as important.  Indirect instruction happens when students read a lot from a variety of sources and at the right level, i.e. neither too easy nor too challenging.  Sometimes there is the perception that English teachers are responsible for the bulk of direct instruction, but all teachers should think about ways to add vocabulary instruction to their courses both directly and indirectly.

2. Expose students to the same word multiple times and focus on deep processing of those words.  The research indicates that for a student to truly “own” a word, for it to be truly a part of the student’s arsenal, he must be exposed to the word 12 to 14 times!  Exposure does not mean drilling endlessly, simple repetition, or copying and memorizing a definition out of the back of the textbook. (Teachers of anything other than English literature are often very guilty of doing this last one!)  Students must be exposed to words in a variety of ways and actively engage with the vocabulary.  Conventional, dictionary definitions are of limited use if a student can’t actually use a word in meaningful ways or remember it for more than a few weeks.  How can we expose students to words in different ways? Check out Deep Processing Activities for Vocabulary Development for some ideas.

3. Choose the “right” words.  Much of the research indicates using the concept of 3 tiers of words when selecting which words will be taught in any given class.  Tier 1 words are basic words generally familiar to the majority of students and therefore rarely requiring instruction. Tier 2 words are high-frequency words that are related to many other words.  Instruction on tier 2 words is important and productive. Tier 3 words are low-frequency words specifically connected to a particular domain or content area and are best learned in that content area. Given these categories, all teachers, but most especially English teachers, should focus on tier 2 words.  Teachers of a given content area like science or mathematics or history should focus on tier 3 words.  But whether you are teaching tier 2 or tier 3 words, the strategies I linked to above work best.

4. Make sure words are connected.  When using a vocabulary workbook or online program, find one that is either thematic or based on roots and prefixes to give students a framework.  Vocabulary workbooks that lack this organization should be avoided.  When choosing words from a novel to teach students, make sure to pick sets of words that are connected to one another to provide that framework.  Also, avoid workbooks that include too many words in a single unit or too many units overall.  If students can learn approximately 400 tier 2 words explicitly in any given year, and you plan on pulling at least some of those words from class readings, you don’t want a vocabulary book that is 30 units long with 20 words per unit!  Students won’t be able to deeply process all those words, resulting in less learning overall.

5. Show your own word consciousness. Make it a point to use high-quality oral language in the classroom.  Share your love of reading. Make it a point to learn new words yourself and share those words with your students.

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