Carla’s vocabulary blog.

Comprehension VS Vocabulary – What does that mean?

When signing up for The 90 Minute Challenge teachers have told me they struggle with finding the time to spend 90 minutes a week on vocabulary. This is what I hear most often:

In my reading program I have a pacing calendar or other demands placed on me that do not make room for more time with vocabulary.

I’d like to address this challenge with what might be a paradigm shift for you or if not for you, for your administration.

At first glance, it would seem that asking teachers to spend less time on comprehension and more on vocabulary sounds like asking a runner to spend less time on training and more time on exercise. The two approaches are working towards the same goal. In the one case, a self-sufficient reader, in the other a strong athlete.

So why am I suggesting it? Because “teaching comprehension” has become synonymous with “doing reading activities” in many schools and in the process learning is getting lost.

Timothy Shanahan, a distinguished leader in literacy, puts it more eloquently.

…schools are dedicated to promoting particular activities and practices—not to teaching children. There are particular activities these principals and teachers want to see in classrooms, and they are not particularly focused on what they are supposed to be engaged in: teaching children to read. 

               Instead of focusing like-a-laser on what they want kids to know, to be able to do, to be, they are promoting favorite classroom activities. Instead of thinking about how to get kids to a particular outcome, they are wondering if they can somehow align the required activities with useful outcomes.

I remember when the “new” reading comprehension strategies arrived at our school. I was excited. A nice concrete list of things to practice felt so good to a frustrated reading teacher: main idea, prediction, summarizing, inferencing, compare and contrast, etc.

I quickly got caught up in the practice of teaching activities around these skills and how to answer certain related question types. Each of my students had a checklist and I had one on the wall. It morphed into coverage, rather than learning and took on a formulaic nature. It took a few years for me to recognize that all that drill and practice rarely helped my struggling students become independent readers.

Only my strong readers where able to transfer the skills I taught them to unfamiliar reading situations.

This was in part because reading comprehension is intimately dependent on knowledge. Strong readers typically enter school with a broad knowledge base and are able to apply “formulas” for reading comprehension without being baffled by the content and vocabulary of each reading selection.

I had to step back and reexamine my teaching with the help of research. Two key elements repeatedly came up in my search for how to build competent readers:

  1. The importance of building a broad knowledge base with a focus on word knowledge.

When children are offered coherent, cumulative knowledge from preschool on, reading proficiency is the result…schools themselves should become highly effective and efficient imparters of language in all its aspects: vocabulary, syntax, knowledge, etc.

  1. The importance of challenging students to think deeply in order to comprehend.
    As pointed out in the very first phrase of the very first of the 32 Common Core literacy anchor standards, CCR.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it…

Is it possible your curriculum is focused more on reading activities and not enough on thinking? Many of our most well know curricula are “reading activity” heavy.

Is it reasonable to spend less time on comprehension and more time on word learning? I am suggesting that by utilizing word learning processes that require deep thinking you are not giving up time for learning to read.

Effective approaches to word learning ask the learner to think deeply and understand how and why the word adds meaning to a context. Combine the building of a word knowledge base with deep thinking and you have a winning approach for building readers through the learning of new words.

Here’s what I hope you take away from this:

By going deeper (and spending more time) with word learning you are building comprehension, not taking time away from it.

Click here to join The 90 Minute Challenge 2018

For effective approaches to word learning browse through my blogs at

Take the one-month Vocab Challenge

90 min/wk on vocab – easy

Finding time – hard

Can you set aside a month where your literacy instruction focuses more on vocabulary (90 min./wk) and less on comprehension?

Putting aside some reading instruction time to focus on more word learning is a challenge full of conflict for teachers and administrators alike.

Here’s some rational for digging in, at least for a month:

  1. For all our efforts to teach reading, results continue to be poor: Results of the NAEP long-term trend assessments in reading tell us – “The average reading score for 17-year-olds was not significantly different from that in 1971.”
  2. Reading comprehension is intimately dependent on knowledge:Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood.” Daniel Willingham, who has long studied best practices for teaching reading,recommends teaching less comprehension and focusing more on building a knowledge base, which includes literary and academic vocabulary from their contexts. 
  3. The overwhelming response last year: 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.
  4. You will have access to effective tools: You don’t have to search for ideas for increasing effective word learning. By joining in you will receive free tools including digital and peer-interactive strategies.
  5. You will have support: You may sign up for our (new and improved 😊) format for supporting each other and sharing ideas in the challenge’s Google Community.
  6. Flexible Timing: This year you will not have to drop out if you can’t fit all 4 of your weeks into The Challenge’s proposed month. We will offer a 2 month period during which we will track, support, and provide free materials. Pick the 4 weeks that work best with your schedule within that parameter. Recognition certificates go out to all who complete 4 weeks.

Starting soon! (Feb.) Learn more and consider joining (click below):

 The 90 Minute Challenge 2018

about Carla – vocabulary enthusiast



Word Walls – They’re not just for beginners!

I love reading new research, especially when it confirms something I already knew. This happens to us teachers a lot, right? How many times have you wanted to shout out, “I’ve been doing that (in secret) all along!” when an educational trend formalizes and becomes something your administrators ask you to implement.

For example here’s a conclusion from a new study in The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology:

Reading and listening to stories fosters vocabulary development.

or in practice

…allowing children to hear stories while they are reading along may be optimal for learning, and especially for the extraction of semantic information supporting teachers’ practice of reading aloud in the classroom. 

Bet you knew that already.

It is, however, very comforting to hear that it’s officially valid!

These statements come from the article Listening while reading promotes word learning from stories  which provides evidence that using two senses while learning new words in context (sight and sound) instead of one (just reading or just listening) improves the chances that the new words will be internalized.

So what does this have to do with Word Walls?

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. Word Walls do work, at all grade levels. If yours seems more of a maintenance burden than a teaching tool you may need to make it more interactive.

“…scores on high-stakes tests increased across all student groups when teachers used interactive word walls…” Interactive Word Walls Transforming Content Vocabulary Instruction

To tie this in with the listening while reading research, start off with a listening-while-reading process.

Consider this:

Did the words on your Word Walls originate from both a visual and an oral/audio exposure within a context?

Your students’ preliminary exposure to an academic word worthy of posting on the classroom Word Wall should come from a reading experience where they both heard and read the word within it’s context. In other words, reading text books, or other informational text aloud with/to students optimizes learning.


Is graphic placement of the words on your classroom wall conducive to repeating and building those oral/audio and visual connections?

Students should be able to add visuals to the words on the wall and have the opportunity to explain the connection they’ve made, while repeating the word and its meaning.

Four other key components to keep in mind for an effective Word Wall: 

1.  Post academic or Tier III words from subject matter such at Social Studies,

Science, or Math to get the biggest bang for your efforts.

2.  Provide a definition both at the moment of exposure to the new word and on your
wall. Don’t leave your students dangling when it comes to Tier III or academic

3.   Include a sentence stem to support comprehension.

4.   Organize your words thematically using a graphic design that shows connections
and supports the concept of categories.

Here’s an example:

To summarize, here’s HOW TO BUILD YOUR WORD WALL, from start to finish:

1.  Select academic or Tier III words from relevant contexts.

2.  Introduce words by reading aloud the context as students read along.

3.  Introduce definitions as words come up.

4. Sketch a map or graphic organizer that will best display the topic and provide
connections (Venn Diagram, Bubble, TChart, Content Frame, WordWeb/Cloud, etc.)

5. Make room for the meaning, a sentence stem, and places to put visuals.

6. Teach students a routine for posting their ideas, that includes saying the word,
paraphrasing the definition, and explaining the connection of their addition to the
word on the wall.


For children ages 8 to 15, schools may focus too much on reading and not enough on increasing vocabulary…From
Reading between the lines in children’s vocabulary differences

I welcome your comments and ideas. Please go to my Google Community, Word Lab and join the conversation.

 Next posting:  Why Reading Comprehension is Misunderstood, with an invitation to 

join this year’s 90 MINUTE CHALLENGE

Free word-learning tool – Click here

 About Sharing:

Please consider becoming a part of our Google Community, where teachers can share their experiences and expertise.

Additional free tools when you join!

Until next time,

The Dangerous Allure of Apps

Why are students and teachers attracted to those learning apps?

Isn’t it obvious?

Just watch how engaged students are when using an online learning game or one of the many fun learning apps available almost for free!

Should we question more deeply the value of many of our online learning tools?

A recent conversation gave me the impetus I needed to look further into this challenge. A school principal expressed to me his concern that students were spending valuable teaching time on less than valuable learning apps. Then I got a chance to look at some digital learning games available on one of the country’s most popular reading curriculums and was appalled. I could see no learning value in what was being offered, yet I completely understood the appeal.

I dug in…to the research that is. I decided someone needed to provide some guidelines for the general use of digital learning.

What a mess…again, the research that is!

Large amounts of research exists on the effectiveness of educational computer games. However, most of it has focused on how well digital learning engages learners.

“Over the past 20 years, scientists have conducted nine major reviews of research on the effectiveness of educational computer and video games. Overall, they’ve found that the research on games is highly diverse, disorganized and unfocused, with a significant number of methodologically flawed studies.”

What they’ve learned is “…how to design a game to promote effective learning remains unclear.”

Here’s a summary of their findings: a lot of the commercial learning games work harder at promoting engagement than on promoting learning. They work off a false premise that improved “flow” as it is called, improves retention and learning.

“Learning for players is often an incidental consequence.”

In one of the most current summaries of studies, by SRI Education, the conclusion was “…that the entertainment value of the simulations and games did not significantly affect learning outcomes.”

Or as Graesser, a leader in another meta-analysis of recent studies found, learning was evident in computer-assisted learning games only when, “…every component of the game was backed by one or more principles of learning. That’s different from a lot of commercial games that often try to optimize motivation but not learning.”


So which principles of learning matter most?

 How can we evaluate a digital learning tool?

Before I give you my full response to those question, I want to acknowledge that you already know the answers. The simplest approach for measuring the learning value of an app or any computer assisted instruction, is to ask yourself, If I did all the things this program does with my students, without the same level of fun/engagement, would they learn? 

Here’s my longer answer.

A 2013 report titled What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory summarizes key studies that have explored what strategies most likely lead to long-term learning. I’ve combined their findings with the work done on transfer of learning by the late Grant Wiggins, a visionary educational reformer and author of Understanding by Design.

Drastically shrinking down all we understand about which strategies are most likely to lead to long-term learning and transference of that learning, we can come up with 4 key principles of learning:

  1. Practice testing. This is where students have to generate an answer to a question. It can include past papers, multiple choice questions or doing practice essay answers. It’s a technique that has been extensively researched and is consistently found to be one of the most effective ways to improve learning. From What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory.

Or as Wiggins puts it: Constantly “test” (without necessarily grading them and/or entering the grade in the grade-book) student ability to self-cue. Examples: Give them unfamiliar looking items, writing prompts, problems, etc. – with no mention of which knowledge is being tapped and which strategies and tools they should use. See what they do on their own, then go over the assessment carefully in class soon after – debrief like a coach.

  1. Distributed practice. Sometimes referred to as “spacing”, distributed practice involves doing little bits of work often instead of a lot all at once (ie cramming). Essentially, students remember more if they spread out their learning; for instance, one hour a day for eight days rather than eight hours in one day…. found to be effective because it allows time for students to forget and relearn the material, which cements it into their long-term memory. From What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory.

Or as Wiggins puts it: Change the set-up so that students realize that a possible use of prior learning comes in many guises…. work on a Gradual Release of Responsibility sequence… [provide a] Model, Guided Practice, Independent Practice, Independent use of all Strategies.

  1. Elaborative interrogation. Asking “why is this true?” or “why might this be the case?” helps students think about the material and make connections to previously learned information.” From What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory.

Or as Wiggins puts it: Provide many examples of ‘think-alouds’ in transfer situations: Talk out, demonstrate, model the kind of pro-active thinking that needs to take place in one’s head if transfer goals are to be achieved. Require students to constantly re-word/re-phrase/re-present what they learn.

  1. Interleaved practice.Interleaving is where students mix up either the types of problem or different subjects, so as to avoid “blocking” their time on just one type of question. This helps keep things fresh and makes it easier for students to identify similarities and differences between the materials they are studying.” From  What Every Teacher Should Know about Memory.

Or as Wiggins puts it: The research on transfer stresses that students need to be given tasks in which the setting/format/context/mode/language is sufficiently varied over time that students learn they have to think more flexibly in tapping their knowledge. 

Shrinking it down further, if you want to know if a digital learning platform is of value and not just using up precious teaching time, look to see if it includes any of these 4 key techniques:

  1. Low stakes test practice/review
  2. Activities that allow for spaced practice
  3. Opportunities for elaboration
  4. Opportunities to approach the learning from different perspectives or contexts

Engagement alone is not the silver bullet it appears to be!

I welcome your comments and ideas. Please go to my Google Community, Word Lab and join the conversation.

Time to Ramp up Again – Here’s the one thing that will make the most difference this year!

I took a break from blogging this summer. I hope you took a break from planning! However, I bet you couldn’t stop thinking about what you need to do differently, or better, or again this year. My brain also kept spinning, especially since I kept feeding it ideas from research.  Here’s my take-out from this summer’s reading and thinking, intended to help you get off to a productive start:

  1. Building enthusiasm and skills for word learning from the get go is the best way to guide your students to overall success. Because… as Draper and Moeller put it “We think with words, therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary.” — A. Draper and G. Moeller
  2. There are thousands of great ideas for building word awareness, skills, and knowledge. Too many actually! Another list of top 10 ideas can be more overwhelming than helpful.
  3. Today’s teaching environment is full of pressure to cover more content and more skills. Which in turn means that more than ever, teachers need to cling to the indisputably worthwhile and well-proven “less is more” approach. This approach is the key to both survival and success. Choosing/prioritizing your teaching pathways carefully is crucial. Building word knowledge supports learning like no other approach.

So how can I help you with these 3 challenges?

  1. In each blog, I will introduce one key concept for word learning and a single application for putting it to use. I will choose the best and easiest to use tool or idea for each concept from my arsenal. See this month’s key concept and application below.
  2. I have established a Google community where you may ask for help on specific issues with teaching words. For example, do you have unique needs for your grade level, are you struggling to address a certain learning need or style, having differentiation challenges, trouble with word choices, etc. Whatever your needs are, you may ask for ideas from me in the Word Lab Google Community. I am also counting on you to share your ideas with others in this Word Lab Google Community. Invitations will go out soon!


FYI – For those of you who were able to keep up with the blogs and emails related to The 90 Minute Challenge last year, I promised 3 things this year:  to keep it simple, to create a better interactive site for sharing ideas, and to provide more ideas for the lower grades. This first blog has begun to address the first two issues. To address the third, I have a bank of resources specific to the lower grades that I will be sharing in my blogs.

For now, here is this school year’s first “key concept” and “application” idea (for K-12):

Key Concept: Students must be able to recognize which words they don’t know within a text. This takes practice and a willingness to admit to lack of knowledge.

Most students prefer not to look up a word or even ask about it during either their own reading or a read aloud. They much prefer making a guess so they can keep going, hoping for the best. Sometimes their guesses work out fine and sometimes not.  Many poor readers have such an ingrained habit of guessing that they don’t have any idea why they don’t understand a passage. This guessing-so-you-can-keep-up-with-everyone is a common survival tactic. After all, don’t we teach our kids to make inferences?

Application: Word Find

Begin by showing students that there is a “world of words” around them-online, in magazines, newspapers, books, letters, and in conversations, to name only a few. Then proceed with a word collecting activity, such as Word Find.

Here’s a summary of the activity:

We already teach classroom routines and learning processes at the beginning of each school year to help students build successful and efficient learning patterns in our classrooms.

Why not also prepare your students for finding words they don’t know by making “finding words you don’t know” an official strategy. Word Find is an interactive whole-class + partnering pencil-and-paper game. Word Find makes it a fun challenge to find unknown words within both challenging and easy texts of yours or your students’ choosing.

Use Word Find to get your students excited about all the words they will be able to learn.

Reading Should be Hard – or – How to Help without Helping too Much

I recently read an article on the internet that fascinated me but was hard reading. I mean I had to go back repeatedly to reread sentences or to refer to the beginning of the paragraph to refocus on the topic. There were also words that were used uniquely, causing me to pause and think harder.

This was not a poorly written piece, on the contrary, it was full of great ideas and fluid. But I got about 2/3 of the way through and found myself distracted, giving up before I reached the conclusion of the piece.

It made me feel bad, giving up like that. I really did want to understand the whole message, but I had gotten discouraged. You don’t often run into challenging reading on Face Book (yup…) and I guess I had forgotten what it was like to have to work at reading.

Then it dawned on me…

I wonder if this is how my struggling readers feel about reading, all the time!

Coincidentally, I had just read an article in Mind Shift discussing how to promote a growth mindset in readers. In other words, how to help readers not give up.

Their message? Reading is a “complicated experience.” It is hard! And nothing is more discouraging to a struggling reader than thinking it is supposed to be easy to read.

Fortunately for me, I already know how to read, so I can get away with ignoring an occasional  Facebook-related challenge. But struggling readers…how can they learn if they give up?  And how many times had I observed students who avoided reading at all costs.

Schwartz presents several ideas for guiding students in facing their own challenges with reading. My favorite, of course, involves words. Here it is, with my own take on how to “not help” your students too much.

First of all, students need to acknowledge what’s not working for them. Poor word knowledge is the most common reason for reading not working with middle grade readers, but students are frequently unaware what a huge role their lack of vocabulary plays.

Second, your students need to see that all readers, even good ones, run into this challenge.

Thirdly, a reliable tool and process for approaching unknown words, needs to be part of their repertoire.

How do you provide these opportunities as a “non-helper?”

Recognizing the source of the challenge:

Provide high interest reading with hard words in the text. Ask students to read aloud to each other or to you then ask comprehension questions that would require knowledge of the difficult words. Ask them to tell you what makes them struggle to answer. Let them work at identifying the source of the challenge and the specific words. Then replace the hard words with easy synonyms. Ask what kind of a difference it made and why. This only needs to be done once to get the point across, that word knowledge matters.

Learning that good readers have to work at it too:

Show students that you also struggle with comprehension when words are hard. Model what you (and most readers) do:

  1. re-read the sentence
  2. use contextual clues to figure it out (talk through how you do it)
  3. look it up
  4. use a technique for remembering it

Providing tools with a rational for their use:

  1. Prove to them that most people don’t remember a word after one introduction, by playing Hot Lead! This activity also only needs to be done once to get the point across.
  2. Introduce the idea of keeping track of new words: a journal with 3 columns on a page headed word, meaning, picture/example, for review.
  3. Provide an easy digital “look up” tool such as a tablet or phone (they do not need to be connected) with a downloaded dictionary such as Merriam Webster’s Learners Dictionary

And remember…

Let them struggle and succeed, review and question…then celebrate the learning!!

Want to make it fun to find hard words? Try Word Find as described in my blog The 5 Most Important Characteristics of any Vocabulary Instruction – Plus 1 more.


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!

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)

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.

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.

ELL Vocabulary Instruction Basics

The ELL student has more than the average disadvantage when it comes to word learning. Unlike so many of their classmates, these students have not received exposure, from birth, to the English language. They don’t even have the basics.

Although many of them have strong comprehension skills in their native tongue, that can’t carry over into reading English due to inadequate word knowledge. Students need to know approximately 90% of the words in any text in order understand.

ELL students not only struggle with Tier II or Tier III words, but also Tier I words. Most teachers do not need to teach Tier I words in their general education classes. Tier I words are usually known by even the most challenged English-speaking readers. This means that even with the most intensive instruction in the gen ed class of Tier II words, the ELL student’s needs are not being met.

Those of you who work regularly with ELL understand deeply the challenge!

The following list summarizes the most important processes to follow when teaching words to ELL.

The list is much like what should be done for English speaking students but extra emphasis needs to be placed on pre-teaching (see the SES strategy). In addition, explicit instruction needs to be more thorough, more demonstrative, more explicit. Cognates can be valuable if available, and you will need to take charge of selecting the words your ELL students need to learn. Finally, peer learning is especially valuable for these students, as they tend to feel isolated.

  1. Pre-teach words (use SES strategies).
  2. Read aloud to students.
  3. Use explicit instruction (SES and Sentence Stems).
  4. Provide repeated exposures (use Sentence Stems).
  5. Include visuals (use Word Walls – see SES).
  6. Show morphology (SES).
  7. Relate to cognates (SES).
  8. Pre-choose the words for them – Tier I, and II.
  9. Use peer-assisted learning strategies (partners – use Sentence Stems).

SES – Say-Explain-Show is a routine that sounds involved at first but with practice can be a fairly quick yet thorough pre-teaching process. Struggling students thrive on established routines. Click here to access instructions.

Sentence Stems – This strategy was introduced by Dr. Isabel Beck and her team. It helps students further define the words they are learning. Essentially, the teacher provides sentence starters with target words included and students show their understanding by finishing the sentence. This can be a partner activity. Access instructions within this article.

I am so grateful to the wonderful teachers who have tackled the challenge of helping our ELL students! Please consider sending them your thanks and encouragement in the comment section of this blog.

Emotions Connect

A key ingredient to learning a new word is the connection a student makes with that word to background knowledge. Many of you have stated that your students are so lacking in background knowledge that it is difficult to help them find those connections. Finding emotional connections is the key.

If you have looked at a VOCABUTRIX you’ll note it is unique in the type of questions it asks. It doesn’t ask, what is it? or what is an example?….It asks students to project their SENSE of a quality (a connotation) to the words, and although their answer depends completely on their background experience, this allows for a broad spectrum of possibilities.

For instance, let’s say two partner readers have selected the word “matrix” to learn and then select the following definition: “a rectangular array of numbers, symbols, or expressions, arranged in rows and columns.” Each, independently, imagines what the definition is trying to tell them and then records their relationship to what it is describing by filling out the VOCABUTRIX columns 1 and 2 (Is it a good feeling? Is it a bad feeling?). Student A may say the feeling is bad, not good, because A hates math and that is what comes to mind when A sees the definition. Student B may say the feeling can sometimes be good and sometimes bad because B might like charts but B finds symbols confusing.

In another column in the VOCABUTRIX …Can you buy a matrix? Again, any connection is acceptable. Maybe student A bought the movie Matrix and therefore answers yes because that is what comes to mind. Student B says no because he’s never had to buy a piece of paper with a matrix on it. They would then have to explain to each other why they chose the answers they chose and how their view can connect to the definition. The student who connected to the movie, might have a hard time explaining the connection but by the very nature of trying to explain, this student is processing a new understanding. What makes this valuable is the discussion that takes place when students share their reactions/connections with their partner.

Even though connections for certain students can be very obtuse, by making that connection and then justifying/explaining it, they are taking ownership of the word and its meaning and are also hearing someone else’s ideas and connections.

These peer interactions and metacognitive thinking are powerful tools but even more potent is making connections to one’s emotions. Emotions play a commanding role in learning.

Questions, comments? Please share below!