Teaching Vocab: Thou Shalt, Thou Shalt Not

A lot of this article will essentially be a summary of Bringing Words to Life. If you find it helpful, you’ll find the actual book is even better (Find it here). 

Trade books are very helpful in teaching young students new vocabulary. A trade book is essentially a large book that teachers will read out loud to the entire class. These books are helpful because the teacher can pre-teach key words and ask questions as they go. This helps keep every understand the story.

Before choosing a trade book, the teacher must first think about target vocabulary. There are two main rules for picking out target words:

  1. The word must be explainable in words the students already understand.
  2. The word must be useful/interesting/applicable to students’ daily lives.

The first is important because if you must use words outside of a student’s vocabulary when explaining them, then the student will not be likely to understand the target word. The second is important because it will help students remember the word’s meaning and, if it is applicable to their lives, it will give them opportunities to utilize said target word.

The goal with any vocab word is for it to become a permanent part of the student’s vocabulary. (No-one wants a student to forget the words after the unit/test.) To make words permanent, teachers should:

  1. Give students multiple exposures to the word/s over time (spaced and retrieval practice)
  2. Individual Reading
    1. Introduce important words (words that could disrupt comprehension) before students being individual reading
      1. 3-5 words per lesson and ~5-9 per week seem to be the sweet spot
      2. If too many words, students won’t remember their definitions
  3. Group Reading
    1. Introduce words as you encounter them
      1. Add a phrase to describe the meaning and move on
        1. Brief is best (during reading focus on text meaning, not vocab building)
      2. Too many words will disrupt the “flow of comprehension” and students will understand less of the text
  4. Thou Shalt Not
    1. Ask, “What do you think this word means?”
      1. This promotes inaccurate definitions and guessing, leading to misconceptions.
      2. Just tell them and have them apply the words.
    2. Have students regularly look up words in a dictionary as a way to learn new vocabulary
      1. Dictionary definitions are not effective for a myriad of reasons.
      2. Definitions lack context/differentiation due to space constraints
        1. Ex: conspicuous=easily seen
          1. Technically true, but likely to lead to an incorrect understanding of the word’s meaning.
        1. Vague language: definition does not include enough info to be useful to a student
        2. More likely interpretation: dictionary gives a different meaning of the word, student doesn’t know/understand and uses the word in the wrong context
        3. Multiple pieces of information: definition includes a list but doesn’t explain how to apply the list (prescriptive or descriptive)
  5. Instead of dictionaries…
    1. Use student friendly explanations
      1. Capture the essence of the word and how it is typically used
      2. Explain the meaning in everyday language
        1. Ex: exacerbate=an action that makes that makes a bad situation even worse
      3. Student friendly explanations will tend to be longer than a dictionary’s definition
        1. Often include: something, someone, describes

Side note 1: A lot of this is simply good teaching practice and is applicable no matter what subject/content you are teaching.

Side note 2: When words are homographs (sound spelling/sound but different meaning) teachers should not teach all the meanings together as this will confuse students. Teachers should teach the meaning that the context gives.


Teaching Vocabulary: The Word Tiers

I have largely used information from Bringing Words to Life, 2nd addition by Isabel L. Beck, PhD, Margaret G. McKeown, PhD, and Linda Kucan, PhD. I would highly recommend buying their book as it is very well researched and has been tremendously practical so far (I am only 3 chapters in.)

Words have been divided into three tiers. Tier one words tend to be common and used in everyday language such as dog, happy, cold, etc. Tier two words are common in literature but not necessarily common in spoken language such as equation, impulse, nutrition. While tier three words are rare in both written and spoken language such as isotope, isosceles, and impressionism.

Our students are already very likely to have a large vocabulary of tier one words, as they are so common. And, these words are common enough that if there are small gaps in a child’s vocabulary they will likely be able to pick them up quickly.

Tier two words are likely to appear with a high frequency in both written and oral communication. A helpful way to determine if the word is tier two is asking yourself, “Does this word offer my students a more specific way to describe something?”

Tier 1 Tier 2
happy jubilant
sad mourn
close precise

The key here is that the words are not just synonyms, but that the words offer students more precise ways of expressing themselves. For example, a child could say “The man is sad because his test score is low.” Or “The man is mourning because his friend man died.” You would not put the word mourn in the first sentence, and putting the word mourn into the second sentence gives it more meaning and paints a more vivid picture for the reader.

The entire concept of word tiers is not clear cut. What separates the words into theirs are general rules that the teacher can apply. This means that we do not need to get bogged down in which category to place the words into. We can use the following guidelines to help us intentionally choose vocabulary words to teach our students.

  • Importance and utility: Do these words appear in many different domains (Subjects)?
  • Conceptual Understanding: Does the word help students understand a key concept with specific language?
What a student might say Tier 2
The water goes up. evaporate
The rock sinks because it is heavier than water. The rock sinks because it is more dense than the water.
The wall blocks the light The wall is impermeable to light.
  • Instructional Potential: Can the words that can be used in different contexts with different meanings?
What a student might say Tier 2
1. The boy is doesn’t need help.
2. America no longer belongs to England.
1. The boy is independent.

2. America became independent when it won the war against England.

1. The throw was perfect.

2. What you said is true.

1. The throw was very accurate.

2. What you said was accurate.

Tier three words are generally domain (subject) specific like “Homeric Greek literature” and are unlikely to come up outside of specific circumstances. As a result, they are not worth teaching like tier two words because it would simply take too much time. The authors of Bringing Words To Life recommend that teachers teach these words as they come up in the text or class. As an important note, many subjects use tier three words as regular vocabulary words. Tier three words should not be reduced to “isolated words”. Tier three words need to be taught as content knowledge. This means that as students are learning these words, they should practice using them in authentic contexts. For example:

Science Tier 3 Words Potential Activities to Practice Tier 3 Words
1. Convection Currents 1. Have students compare the words

2. Have students draw diagrams

3. Give students concrete examples and have them explain why it is a god example

2. Plate Tectonics

When you choose the words to teach, focus on the tier two words as those have the most utility. Just don’t make students find the meanings in their dictionaries.