3,000 New Words a Year…Is this reasonable?

If you have studied the research on vocabulary acquisition, you’ve probably seen recommendations like this:

Students should learn 1000 to 4000 new words a year…

You’ve also probably heard statements like this:

“The importance of direct vocabulary instruction cannot be overstated.” Marzano  (2014)  http://www.marzanoresearch.com/vocabulary

My first reaction to these to statements is disbelief. How in the world would anyone be able to teach that many new words to each of their students!

Fortunately, it’s not your responsibility to actually teach all these words. And it is reasonable for your students to learn at least 3,000 new words a year, with your help. But you do not need to (and cannot) teach them all. The majority of these words are learned through reading and classroom experiences.

So how many words is it reasonable for you to teach?

According to Marilee Sprenger and other experts in vocabulary, approximately 300+ words a year. This can include words taught in all subject areas. For a teacher in an ELA classroom teaching 8-10 words a week is a challenge, but doable.

What is does it mean to “teach” words?

Well certainly not just providing definitions. Words must be learned deeply and permanently, until they become part of a student’s repertoire. In addition, we should be teaching them the words they are less likely to learn on their own from their reading and likely to need in order to learn from text books and other informational materials.

In other words, Tier II academic words.

Addressing 8-10 words each week, briefly, is the easiest part of teaching new words. The hardest part of the teaching is scaffolding them into the long term memory of your students.

VOCABUTRIX and Worder Nerds address the first step. This involves guiding students to make personal connections with their words. After that, it’s as straight forward as practice makes perfect, to store these words in long term memory. Use a wide variety of ways to access understanding. Then finally practice retrieval. Use the activities Pop and Pyramid Wordup for practice and retrieval and keep reviewing for at least a month after students have learned the words keeping in mind that some student need more time than others. Refer to Marilee Sprenger’s new book 101 Strategies to Make Academic Words Stick for more ideas.

Encourage your students to keep a vocabulary journal.

Writing about words is important. By writing down the words and additional connections to those words, the brain’s pathways are triggered in ways that improve storage. http://www.lifehack.org/articles/featured/writing-and-remembering-why-we-remember-what-we-write.html

In additional, you can increase visual connections by posting their words on a word wall. Start by building up their curiosity by posting them before they actually learn them. And of course stick figure drawings create another effective visual.

Word learning is a reading comprehension activity.

So now that you’ve tried to increase your focus on words for a whole month, with The 90 Minute Challenge, keep it up! If you are trading off some comprehension instruction time for word instruction, you are not losing a thing, as long as your students are still thinking deeply and practicing context clue skills.

It has been my goal to encourage you to engage your students more and provide guidance on how to teach words effectively. When taught within contexts and metacognitive strategies are applied, word learning can become just another reading comprehension activity. I hope you will continue to give it 90 minutes a week of your time.

1 reply
  1. Marilee Sprenger
    Marilee Sprenger says:

    Bravo! Carla, this post shares important ideas for all teachers, as each of us has vocabulary to teach through direct instruction. Your suggestions and links will be very helpful. As more teachers realize that they are vital to the success of their students, and vocabulary is a clear indicator of future success, we will be on our way to bridging the vocabulary gap and ending word poverty! Those 300 words will make a huge difference in the lives of our students who are unable to learn 3000 or 4000 words each year. If they do not have literacy support at home, then those 300 become a large percentage of their yearly vocabulary repertoire.
    Thank you for your insightful thoughts and clear directions!


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