Carla’s vocabulary blog.

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!

The 5 Most Important Characteristics of Any Vocabulary Instruction – Plus 1 more

Marilee Sprenger emphasizes in her new book One Hundred and One Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick,

”Friday is not the only day that vocabulary is important, though you’d never guess that was the case in many classrooms in 2016. This practice is still pervasive and it must stop. Vocab is important every day. We don’t want to create neural pathways (myelination) in students’ brains that hardwire them to care about vocabulary only on Friday. (p. 37)”

There are lots of wonderful ways to teach vocabulary. You don’t need many, but you need ones that work. Whichever strategies you use, make sure they utilize the 5 top researched principles below and then commit to spending more time on word learning. That is really all there is to a top notch word learning program!

The 5 guiding principles:

  1. Create opportunities for students to make connections to their background knowledge.
  2. Create opportunities to talk about the words, including saying them aloud and using them in conversation.
  3. Create opportunities to visualize understanding of a new word.
  4. Create opportunities to learn words in context and to practice context clue skills.
  5. Foster word consciousness by modeling awareness and joy and through social learning.

VOCABUTRIX, Pyramid Wordup, Worder Nerds, POP, and for K-3  Jenn’s Vocabulary Graphic Organizer and Cathy’s  Anchor Charts all support these guiding principles. Be sure to try the stick drawing version of Pyramid Wordup for enhancing visualizations. Your kids will love it (and you will enjoy the quiet nature of this activity)!

Did I say that these principles are all there is to a great vocabulary program? Well there really is one more thing…

The other important best practice for word learning is frequently left off the list (note that it is not in the above list) perhaps because it seems so obvious. It is also very hard to manage.


Students should learn words they don’t already know.

See what I mean… obvious! But most curriculums don’t support this well. They produce a standard list of words that all the students should learn, whether they need to or not. With time for word learning being such a precious commodity, it seems crazy to ask some of your students to spend time on words they already know.

There is a good reason why this keeps happening.

It can be very time consuming to create personalized word lists for each child in your classroom. It requires providing a wide range of words for students to learn from, pre-assessing their levels of knowledge, and then creating activities for everyone at their level of need.

Yes…we are talking about the challenging process of DIFFERENTIATION!

There really is only one solution!

Students must learn to pick the words they don’t know and then be given access to a word learning strategy that can be universally applied at any level.

Have you ever had students say they know all the words in a text and don’t need to learn any, or one who just picks only words he/she already knows? Have you ever seen a curriculum that actually teaches students how to find words they don’t know? Try out Word Find.

Word Find

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

Why not also prepare you students for finding words they don’t know. Add this routine to the mix and model it in a way that helps students see its value.

Make it a game and a fun challenge to find unknown words. Get them excited about all the words they will be able to learn. Learn about Word Find.

Please share below or on our Facebook page any other ideas you have for teaching students to select words they need to learn.

Engaging Engagement

Many of you have mentioned improved engagement as one of your goals for teaching word knowledge. Although there are great games and activities that help with this (be sure to try out Pyramid WordUp), there are 3 general approaches that can improve any lesson.

First, keep in mind that you do not need to teach students to remember all their definitions. Flash cards are rarely motivating or engaging and certainly not effective. When it comes to teaching vocabulary, the goal is improved reading comprehension, not memorized definitions. Assess their reading comprehension rather than give them vocabulary tests, to see if the work you are doing with them is effective.

You need only to bring students to level three understanding as described in Edgar Dales work, The Living Word Vocabulary (1965): A sense of what the word means in context. 

This means providing students with opportunities to connect meaningfully in a variety of contexts, with their words. This “sense” is enough for your ultimate goal…improved reading comprehension.

Read more about this in my blog We Don’t Know Words From Adam 


Next, put more of the responsibility for learning on your students. No, not by adding pressure and making demands, but by providing the freedom to choose. Whenever possible let them choose the words they would like to learn. If they don’t know how, teach them. See my blog A Time for Words.

This can be scary to do in a classroom full of students. Sometimes labeled “structured chaos,” it’s the word chaos that puts fear in most of us.

Need help with this? You are not alone! Read How one Teacher Let Go of Control to Focus on Student

Centered Approaches. “Academically, the kids dive deeper when they determine where they’re headed.”

And/or read  How do We Know When Students Are Engaged. “The ultimate engagement is to put the learner in charge of learning.”

If your curriculum makes it impossible for students to select some of their own words, give them other opportunities for choosing such as setting personal goals, choosing partners, and choosing ways to share their word knowledge.


Finally, be sure students get to talk, a lot! This is one thing they all (almost) know how to do.

Teach them to look for personal connections to their words.

Your role is to be supportive of all their ideas but expect them to explain their connections. When they have to explain their thinking (metacognition) to a peer partner they also have an opportunity to listen to that partner’s ideas, expanding their thinking.

This takes modeling in the classroom and well-orchestrated practice but is very achievable and essential to engaged learning.

Read more about learning through talking: Supporting Social Interaction in an Intelligent Collaborative Learning System.

And/or read: Peer Learning: Enhancing Student Learning Outcomes


If the teaching tools you use in your classroom do not provide the flexibility for incorporating these 3 approaches take a look at VOCABUTRIX and Pyramid WordUp. They are designed with these strategies in mind.

We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below!

Finding Time for Words

We have been taught to see vocabulary as something separate from reading, an add-on, something that takes extra time. However, if words are taught within context, then you are teaching comprehension skills simultaneously, doubling the value of your limited time. Teaching words should not take time away from reading instruction, it should be an integral part of it, a part of the comprehension process. You can reclaim time by weaving your word learning into your instruction so that it becomes your reading instruction.

What does this restructuring of instructional time entail? Two practices might need changing:

  1. The practice of teaching word lists or definitions should be dropped.
  2. Looking up words must be simple and quick.

Students can learn words directly from the texts/literature they are reading, often by choosing their own words, and they can have access to definitions either through you or through technology.

Prepare you students for finding words they don’t know. Turn it into a game. Start with hard texts so it is easy to find unknown words, and quickly list them for everyone to see. You can raise their enthusiasm simply by making it clear they won’t have to learn them, at this point, just find them. Keep it lively and fun. Quickly go over the class list and ask for hands of all those that don’t know the word. (You will need to define knowing as being able to explain the word to a friend or use it properly in a conversation.) Next, explain that it is more difficult to find new words in easier texts, because your brain can guess meanings. Make it a challenge to find unknown words in easier and easier texts.

You can save both time and reduce frustration when accessing definitions. If you are unable to provide all the definitions, let students use cell phones to look up words. This is simple for them, accessible from anywhere, and motivating. You can read more about this in The 90 Minute Challenge packet.

As you prepare for The 90 Minute Challenge, commit to the best method for your students to access definitions quickly and practice this method for ease. Make a competition out of it, create teams or partnerships. Let it be fun and noisy to be the first to find a definition. Go over the pitfalls (like spelling) and what to do about it. Download simple e-dictionaries and have students use voice to enter words.

Clarify with your students why it is important that this part is easy and shouldn’t take much time. Get them excited about all the words they will be able to learn. If you will be the one providing most of the definitions, it is still important for students to practice this. They need to know they can have definitions available at their fingertips and that looking up words can be fun and an important time saver. This is a concept you want them to remember in the future.