The 90 Minute Challenge – You Did It!

Below is the challenge I sent out November of 2016.


By March 1, 2017,  717  teachers had asked to participate.


The overwhelming response: The 90 Minute Challenge made a permanent positive contribution to participants. Teachers agreed their renewed confidence in effective word learning in the classroom meant more words learned and a boost in their commitment to keep it up.


I am thrilled!    Click here for the full report.


Here’s the original Challenge sent Nov. 2016:

What am I daring you to do? I’m daring you step back and redesign your teaching priorities for a whole month.

I’m talking about putting less time into close reading and reading strategies and putting more time into highly focused word learning.

I’m challenging you to create a classroom environment where your students’ appreciation of word knowledge is heightened more than usual.

I dare you to take 90+ minutes a week to give direct instruction of word learning your all, for one whole month.


Because you’ll get more bang for your buck!

Because, “…correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research….there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary.” E.D Hirsch A Wealth of Words

Because, “…vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts.” A Wealth of Words

Because as Marzano keeps reminding us, “The importance of direct vocabulary instruction cannot be overstated.” Marzano(2014)

Because, “The number of words that students need to learn is exceedingly large; on average students should add 2,000 to 3,000 new words a year to their reading vocabularies” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002).

Because, ”The key to increasing upward mobility is expanding vocabulary.” J. Carter How improving Vocabulary Helps Human Flourishing

Because, “Vocabulary is critical to an active imagination. A child’s ability to imagine things beyond their own senses is directly related to the depth and breadth of their vocabulary.” C. Clarkson

I can keep going…but you get the idea.

During my tenure as Title I coordinator, I found teachers reluctant to give up reading-teaching time in order to make time for more vocabulary. They had to reduce the teaching of reading strategies to make time. There is very little supportive evidence, that teaching a large multitude of reading strategies improves reading but our teachers had become quite attached to the reading strategies protocols.

We asked teachers to “just try it” for a while (just like I am asking you now) and see how it went. From there we were able to create a dialogue about prioritizing and what the research says. We changed our focus and started making much greater gains in reading scores. With this 90-minute challenge, I hope to also create a dialogue. During the challenge month, I will be sending encouragement in the way of research and ideas. At the end, everyone is asked to share their experiences. My hope is that this experience and subsequent dialogue will also give your kids a lift in their reading scores.

Here are some DO’s and DON’T’S that should make your vocabulary focus easier and more effective:


  1. Give everyone the same weekly word list with no opportunities for differentiating the learning.
  2. Avoid challenging texts for struggling readers.
  3. Let students spend time looking up words in the dictionary.
  4. Let students spend time memorizing definitions.
  5. Assess progress by testing word knowledge independent of a context.
  6. Feel obligated to teach every aspect of a word’s meaning.


  1. Have your middle grade students pick words they don’t know from the context of what they are reading.
    1. Paired reading is one way to do this (see VOCABUTRIX for more ideas)
  2. Provide a common word list, that represents the expectations for word learning for your particular group and/or subject area.
  3. Provide personalized structured approaches for dealing with words in challenging texts. (see Worder Nerds)
  4. Have students look up words on their phones, on tablets, or on computers.
    1. If you’re worried about using cell phones in class, see the tip below.
  5. Have students discuss aloud with their peers their personal connections to any aspect of the word that they have looked up.
  6. Have students discuss different contexts for the words they are learning and the “feeling” the words hint at based on their personal experience with its meaning.
  7. Do have students review their favorite new words and trust that the exposure created through sharing personal connections will give them enough to build on.

Why isn’t it good use of your or your students’ time to delve in depth into all the variable ways a word can be applied? Read this short blog: We Don’t Know Words from Adam.
About using cell phones:

DO NOT HAVE STUDENTS USE A DICTIONARY TO LOOK UP DEFINITIONS! Teaching your students dictionary skills is important but should not be required for learning word meanings. What’s important here is to get to a valid definition quickly. If students are allowed to use phones, have them download a dictionary app. Once downloaded, students can put the phone in “airplane” mode. A digital dictionary is of course also accessible from a tablet or computer. Once students are comfortable quickly looking up words digitally, they often make it a habit, and what a great habit to encourage!


So what do you think? Can you join us? We will help you along the way with tips, inspirations, and motivational support. Take the time to learn more about The 90 Minute Challenge before you decide.

And before you close out of this blog page, tell us in the comments area what your personal and/or professional roadblocks would be to spending 90 minutes a week on word learning. We’d like to hear what your challenges already are!

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