Book Review: Bringing Words To Life

Authors: Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, & Linda Kucan

Rating (out of 5): ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

To put things simply, this book should be considered required reading for teachers. Its strategies and concepts are applicable for every subject at all grade levels. The authors do a tremendous job of accessibly distilling research into a book for teachers. As you read through the book you will notice that it is well researched and builds towards a common theme: In order to learn new words students need multiple exposures in multiple contexts with multiple opportunities to use the words in multiple contexts.

This may seem obvious, and hopefully it is. However, the reality is that in many classrooms, this does not happen. The book gives teachers numerous strategies to remedy this educational malady.

The book is divided into 10 chapters. The first walks you through the rationale behind “Robust Vocabulary Instruction”. While the rest give ways to apply the approach in the classroom.

I found chapter 2 to be particularly insightful. This chapter walks teachers through how to choose vocabulary words. It guides the teacher through a vocabulary selection process involving the somewhat vague but still very useful word tiers (Tier 1, Tier 2, & Tier 3). Essentially, Tier 1 words are common and used often in both reading and writing. Tier 2 words are common in writing, but not as common in speaking. While Tier 3 words are content specific.

Tier 1

Tier 2

Tier 3










The authors argue for teachers to focus on Tier 2 words because they are widely applicable, used in many situations, and Tier 1 words tend to already be known while Tier 3 words tend to be taught as part of the standard course content.

Chapter 3 answers the questions of when?, How many?, and How? to introduce vocabulary words. It found that, teachers can introduce the vocabulary word as it appears in the text, provided the word can be immediately understood when accompanied by a short explanation (a phrase or a sentence). The explanation must short because, when reading a text, the focus ought to be on comprehending, not vocab building. Words should be taught before they come up in a text when those words essential for understanding the text’s message. It is also important to limit the amount of words introduced to avoid overwhelming students’ working memories.

The authors recommend teachers teach between 6-10 words spread over 5-9 days. To implement this, regardless of which Tier the words happen to be in, they promote introducing half of the words on day one, and the other half on day two. Throughout this timeframe, It is important to repeatedly have students refer back to and use the words.

As far as how to introduce new words, the authors recommend avoiding asking students, “Who knows what word ‘X’ means?” The reason is that, a student may give an unclear/incorrect answer which can lead to other students learning an incorrect definition/association. Instead, teachers should provide student friendly definitions and an immediate chance to apply the word in a simple context. Over time, as the students are using the vocabulary, their teacher should ensure that they use the vocabulary in situations that offer both different contexts and difficulties. This will help ensure students are able to know, understand, and apply the word and it increases the chances of the word becoming part of their used vocabulary. The rest of the book digs further into the “how” of how to teach vocabulary.

A lot of the insights from this book may appear to be commonsensical because the ideas are so simple (Ex: multiple exposures helps students learn). But consistently applying them well is a challenge.

Buy it here:


ESL Teaching

The following is a summary of Chapter 9 from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret Mckeown, and Linda Kucan. If you teach young or ESL students, I highly recommend this book as it is immensely practical and backed by research.

English as a second language (ESL) students must go on a journey before they can find academic success. They tend to have a smaller vocabulary, weaker semantic connections, and less word part knowledge than native speakers (Verhoeven, 2011). This creates a hindrance and barrier to learning academic content. It generally takes ESL students between 1-2 years to become conversational on everyday topics. But it can take 5-7 years for ESL students to pass the “lexical bar” of cultural and academic language (Cummins, 1994).

It has been proposed that when students are at the early stages of being conversational (a simple, everyday conversation) that they should be exposed to explicit teaching with tier two words. A key qualifier is that students must already understand the underlying concept. For example, all students will understand the word, ‘hungry’. So, you could teach students the meaning of ‘famished’. One key reason we should teach our ELL students tier two vocabulary is that they are unlikely to be exposed to it in oral conversation. Another is that a lack of vocabulary drastically inhibits reading comprehension (access to knowledge).

The good news is that what research has shown to be effective for native English speakers is equally effective for ESL students.

This means that we should strive to

  1. Provide multiple encounters with target words in multiple contexts involving analysis and target word use in both a written and oral format
    1. Improves word knowledge (Snow, Lawrence, & White, 2009)
  2. Promote active processing
    1. Supports depth of word knowledge (Carlo et. al, 2004)

ESL students and native speakers can improve their vocabulary at similar rates. However, this will not help close the vocabulary and corresponding comprehension gap (even with interventions) since ESL students start with smaller vocabularies. But, interventions are very helpful nonetheless because studies have shown that without them, gaps in vocabulary, reading comprehension, and test scores expand (Kiefer, 2008).

In order to further supplement the vocabulary development of ESL students, consider teaching lexical morphemes. Lexical morphemes are the root of the word. For example, with ‘press’ we have depress, compress, oppress, etc. By looking at the root of the words, it may improve students’ semantic connections. This could be furthered by teaching students about the morphological relationship between English and Latin. This could prove beneficial as many English words have their root in Latin.

In order to further help your ESL students (and every other student) make sure that your classroom procedures are clear and known. This follows not just for transitions, but also for instructional patterns. For example, students should know what to do when asked to identify and explain a word’s prefix. If students have this procedural knowledge, then their working memory will be freed up to focus on learning the content instead of how to perform the task.