Carla’s vocabulary 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.

Vocabulary Tools for K-5

From Jenn’s  blog – at Adventures in Literacy Land  –  a quick and easy Vocabulary Graphic Organizer  which can be used K-5 and across all subject areas.

From Cathy’s blog – also in Adventures in Literacy LandFour Vocabulary Ideas to Avoid Roadblocks for K-5

The Power of Words – Building Vocabulary Age 3 to Grade 3

Fran Toomey brings a background in elementary education, communication sciences and disorders (speech/language pathology), and developmental psychology. Her work compliments the middle grade focus on my site. She  posted the following excellent blog, easily viewed as a slide show:

The Power of Words – Building Vocabulary Age 3 to Grade 3

To all 90 Minute Challengers – thanks for leaving your ideas and comments here!

For those of you unable to access The 90 Minute Challenge FaceBook Page  please leave your comments and questions below on our blog.


This page is dedicated to collecting comments, complaints, ideas and anything else related to the challenge of building word knowledge with your students.

Please leave your comments below.

Carla  (You may also reach me at

Can Words POP!?



Learning that POPS is learning that grows your brain…popping new connection buds into place.

Here are three truths about learning that POPS!…

  1. Learning POPS for you if it is personally meaningful.
  2. It POPS for you if you are excited about it.
  3. It POPS if your friends are also excited about it.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could make learning of new words POP for our students,
especially when learning those generic academic words?

Is it Personally Meaningful?
Encounters with study words outside of the classroom setting bring personal meaning to those words. When students find academic words showing up in their personal spaces, those text book words begin to take on more relevancy. They’ll find words like analyze, benefit, or accommodate can show up on their favorite TV show, or Facebook, or in the grocery store…a quiet but not insignificant POP.

Is it Exciting?
That’s a tough one! Most students I’ve encountered are not naturally excited about learning the word “concept.” Excitement must come from a bigger sense of why learning a word matters. Competition is one way to add excitement to learning but you have to make good use of the pros and not intensify the cons of competition. For instance, the game aspect, the feeling of success, the comradeship make the learning POP! These work best with kids in the middle grades. Younger students tend to take things too personally. And for those who always feel behind or don’t like the pressure, they should be able to be winners as well. If you can make competition a win-win experience, then you’ve accomplished POP!

Are Your Friends Digging It?
I am an introvert, which oddly enough makes me exceptionally well qualified to say that peer interaction really can make things POP! It just needs to be the safe kind. In both my childhood and as a teacher I’ve seen the safest peer interactions occur when students get to choose a partner to work with. Working with a partner team combined with win-win competition is a formula for POP! Then add to that the idea of working towards a class goal and your classmates can be cheering each other on.

So…what kind of an activity incorporates these attributes and helps make word learning POP!?

I recently read about an activity called In the Media. Dr. Margaret Mckeown and her research team created this activity and tested it with 6th graders. The general idea is students collect new context for words they are learning in class, from outside the classroom. They share these with their classmates while competing for recognition points. I loved the idea and wondered if I could enhance the POP of it all. So I did, and you’ll never guess what I decided to call this activity…POP! Of course!

You can try out POP! after you subscribe to my blog.

You will also gain access to the AWL (high frequency Academic Word List)

And remember:


Please share in the comments section a moment when you had POP! while teaching words.

A Silver Bullet for Helping Readers? Maybe…

Colleagues, you’ve got something that’s very close. I know, it’s dangerous to believe something can be that promising, especially in education! But there have been more correlations in educational research supporting the value of this “silver bullet” than in any other educational research.

We have been reluctant to take on the concept of a “silver bullet.” We have been taught that children all learn differently. Which they do! How could there be one thing that makes a difference to every child.

I remember attending a workshop by Dr. Kate Kinsella who stated clearly that there was a “silver bullet.” As I turned to look at my colleagues, I could see that more than half the teachers were doing a mental eye roll. You could just see their minds already preparing a defense to such a threatening idea.

We work hard to make progress with our readers, using so many highly recommended strategies, assessing and reassessing. It just can’t be that simple.

Well I agree, education is never simple, but we have continued to give inadequate time and attention to this “silver bullet.” We’ve continued to get caught up in the latest teaching concepts, and have simply let this tremendous need and opportunity stay on the back burner. Is it because it is too simple?

Here’s what Dr. Kate Kinsella said at that workshop: “Vocabulary is the silver bullet.”

Here’s what E. D. Hirsch reminds us in a speech to the Virginia House of Delegates: “The persistent achievement gap between haves and have-nots in our society is chiefly a verbal gap. There is no greater practical attainment in the modern world than acquiring a bellyful of words. A large vocabulary is the single most reliable predictor of practical, real-world competence…” – E.D. Hirsch, 2011 

And, “…correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.” A Wealth of Words

Marzano’s never stops reminding us, “Direct teaching of vocabulary might be one of the most underused activities in K-12 education. The lack of vocabulary instruction might be a result of misconceptions about what it means to teach vocabulary and its potential effect on student learning.” – Marzano et al., 2002 Classroom Instruction That Works

And here are wise words from some teachers who get it, “We think with words, therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary.” — Edutopia – A. Draper and G. Moeller

Have I convinced you yet?

So what does a teacher do?

Make time…I know, the most controversial word in teaching…time!

There are lots of ways to teach vocabulary successfully (be sure to check out VOCABUTRIX and other free tools available upon joining our blog, and check out my digital version Word Lab Web). What counts most is that we give it a higher priority.

My personal action research tells me that 90 minutes a week can do it! I made a difference of 1.2 years in reading scores in just 4 months by prioritizing 90 minutes a week for differentiated word learning.

Let me finish with this last poignant statistic:

“According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22 percent of children in the United States are living in poverty.

According to the Heart of America foundation, 61 percent of families living in poverty do not have children’s books in their homes. Consequently, children living in poverty already have a 50 percent weaker vocabulary than their wealthier peers at the start of school.” Poverty and Illiteracy in Schools

Are you ready to take on the challenge of making more room for vocabulary instruction? Please share with us your fears, your challenges, your objections, as well as your successes in making room.

We are building a community of educators who can help each other create classrooms with an effective and efficient vocabulary focus. For this reason, we ask you to opt in (below) to our blog updates in order to download our free tools.

We don’t KNOW words from Adam…

 I hate when this happens!
The other day I was having a conversation with my daughter about foster kids and the kinds of life experiences that are most common to them. I began my typical consulting-mother/teacher sort of exchange and got stuck…I couldn’t for the life of me come up with the word I KNEW I wanted to use and that I KNEW I KNEW, to finish my thoughts!

If this hasn’t happened to you yet…you are one of the few.

So does this mean I don’t KNOW the word? Of course not…believe it or not (I’m embarrassed here) the word was “betrayed.”

And my point?
So what does it mean to “know” a word? It turns out it does not have to be a whole lot! At least not when it comes to teaching a student a new word.

Here’s what they say…
There was a ton of research in the 80’s and 90’s and the general consensus was that the brain collects word knowledge along a spectrum of understanding, with no end to the refining of one’s understanding of the word. My favorite list of stages comes from Edgar Dale’s work, author of ‘The Living Word Vocabulary’ (1965).

  1. No knowledge of the word or even its existence.
  2. Awareness that the word exists without knowing its meaning.
  3. A sense of what the word means in context.
  4. A richer understanding that allows us to use the word.

Others have refined the pit stops along the continuum-of-word-understanding to include things like pronunciation, definition, function, derivatives, multiple meanings, connotations, etc.
(Uh oh…I’m not sure where my lapse in memory fits in here!)

Where does this leave us teachers?
Where does our role as teachers fit in? How far along the continuum are we supposed to bring our students. We are pressed for time. We have an overload of learning targets placed on us. We have students in our sixth grade classrooms with anywhere from a second grade vocabulary to high school or above. We know students can learn some new words from just reading, but we also have students stuck at low reading levels unable to build on their limited knowledge.

Marzano tells us,”The importance of direct vocabulary instruction cannot be overstated.”

E. D. Hirsch reminds us that “…correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.”

And the answer is…
Three fold:

  1. Teach new words in context, with multiple exposures (6). Make time for it! This will get them to Dale’s stage 3.
  2. Provide lots of general practice in using context clues, trusting their guts, building confidence in their ability to make good guesses. This will help them learn more from their reading.
  3. Make word learning something that is engaging, stimulating, motivating, and feels like success. Convince them that greater word knowledge can improve their life choices! (See the resources in my Worder Nerds activity.)

(Note: Although going over definitions is a part of this, teaching definitions is not!)

In other words…
Our job is to get them started on the continuum and expose them to many opportunities for experiencing the words they are learning. And when we assess students for word learning we should not be testing their memory of a definition but their ability to make sense of the word in context.

So tell me:
Which one of the three teaching strategies above gives you the greatest challenge? Please share in the comment box below! Be specific as to why and the nature of the struggles you face. Your challenges represent all of us!

Try my VOCABUTRIX if you are looking for a new solution for differentiating word learning in a fun way. It’s FREE!


We are building a community of educators who can help each other create classrooms with an effective and efficient vocabulary focus. For this reason, we ask you to opt in (below) to our blog updates in order to download our free tools (Vocabutrix and Worder Nerds).