What’s in a Word? On Vocabulary Instruction

What’s In a Word? On Vocabulary Instruction

by Kathleen Stern

As a middle school reading teacher, I constantly find myself thinking, “If my students knew the meaning of more words, they would be better readers.” I am not alone in this sentiment. Many teachers ask themselves and one another, “How can we help our students learn more words, increase their reading volume and improve their comprehension?” There are only 24 hours in a day and students get one to two hours of ELA instruction at best.

In the last year or so, I have tried to strike a balance with vocabulary and chip away at my concerns. I am not devoting my entire class to the study of words, nor are students explicitly learning 200 new words. Rather, I want my students to have an increased awareness of words in general and a deeper knowledge of fewer, frequently appearing words. My goal is that they become masters of 60 “Tier 2” words found in their texts (ex: tactic, align, apprehensive, frantic). I want students to understand these words’ nuances, connotation, connection to other words, and their proper usage in a sentence. With this narrowed lens, I hope that my students are better equipped to meet CCRA.R.4

Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Please find the words covered thus far on the pictures of my word wall below:

The Student Vocabulary Dictionary

Most days, my students start class with five to ten minutes of work in their Vocab Dictionary. The dictionary is the brainchild of my ELA colleague, Peter Sipe. First, we start by reviewing a teacher-generated definition (or definitions, if the word has multiple meanings). In creating the dictionary, I have had to resist the urge to “dumb down” the meaning of words or ignore words’ multiple meanings. For example, the meaning of the words “draft” or “promote” differ tremendously based on its context and students should know all meanings. As teachers, we should embrace these less-than-straightforward conversations with students.

I completely agree with Peter, who encourages teachers and students to play around with the word, “pick it up. Toss it back and forth.” Once we’ve discussed the basic meaning(s) of a word in class, students use their Vocab Dictionary to create sentences and illustrations and respond to scenarios about the word. When learning the word “promote,” I may ask students, do you think video games promote violence? Why or why not? Students test-drive the word until they feel like it’s theirs to own.

Student Voice and Collaboration

My lofty goal is to make vocabulary study more collaborative and group-based. It is so tempting to fall into teacher-driven, information-transfer activities—give the definition, memorize the definition, move on.  I have realized that students can synthesize what they know about words with the help of a knowledgeable peer, not just a teacher. Deep cognition is rooted in social interaction with peers. For example, I may have student pairs write a story, create a commercial script or respond in the speech of a character using vocabulary words.

Stern Vocab Blog Student VoiceRecently, a few students played guest teacher. (Caveat: Before choosing a guest teacher, I always scan the dictionary ahead of time and choose someone who has properly used the word in a sentence and has a strong grasp on the connotation, synonyms, etc.). The guest teacher reviews the questions and scenarios in the Vocab Dictionary but also asks follow-up questions when students share their responses: “Why did you choose that?” “Is there a situation in which this word has a negative connotation?” Two takeaways—1) Students want to impress each other. Their engagement and participation skyrocketed during this portion of class. 2) My students have internalized my questions to the point where it appears that they are gunning for my job.

Study Resources and Incentives

When my students’ brains become saturated (vocab word!), I encourage them to independently engage with words. Here are a few resources and incentives that have worked well:

1) Word Wizard quarterly competition: Once a student learns a vocabulary word in class, they search for and bring in examples of that word in books, TV, radio, film, or conversation. After showing me the excerpt of the text (or recapping the TV show, movie or conversation), they explain what the word means. Added bonus: my eyes are opened to what twelve-year-olds really read, watch and talk about outside of school. Students earn three points for each word they find outside of school. At the end of each quarter, these points can be exchanged for bonus classwork points, merits, or a combination of the two.

Stern Vocab Blog Quizlet2) Quizlet.com: Students use this website to create notecards, create and take their own tests and play games to remember vocabulary words. I encourage students to use the website before a quiz. Students can review a large quantity of words and study concepts or words for any content-area class.

(Caveat: if you create a class set, Quizlet confines you to entering the word and its definition, so if you’d like students to use words in a sentence, this is not the website for you.)

3) Notecards: Instead of the typical word/definition notecards, my students write down a few items that help them make sense of the word. For example, when students create a notecard for the word “align,” they’ll write the definition as well as the first word that pops into their heads (ex: agree). They’ll draw a picture of two people agreeing on something and then write a sentence/caption for their illustration using the word “align.”

Stern Vocab Blog Notecard

Assessing Vocabulary in Context

When I want to more formally assess students’ understanding of these words, I sometimes provide a close reading passage. These passages mirror the real-life encounters that students have with difficult words in a text. I have written these passages with or without word banks, depending on students’ accommodations.

Stern Vocab Blog Vocabulary in Context

What’s In a Word?

Common Core standards require students to grapple with increasingly complex texts in all content areas.

We cannot pre-teach every difficult word or toss students a Merriam-Webster dictionary every time they have a question. Rather, we can give them a deep understanding of fewer, more frequently appearing words, model our thinking about words and a word’s role in a sentence, and excite them about independent word exploration.


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