Carla’s vocabulary blog.

So many words…so little time…and what to do about it!

We think with words, therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary. — A. Draper and G. Moeller

(see Edutopia: )

At first, it seems like teaching vocabulary would be so simple – straightforward, easy as pie, a cinch – right? But, how do you keep it fresh and effective, without breaking out the dictionary or sending home weekly word lists?  “Spell it, draw it, use it in a sentence” and apply close reading techniques? These strategies only go so far toward reaching the true level of vocabulary instruction needed to fully launch a student forward in their reading level and support the ability to approach a text ready for deeper thinking.

Making the Time

So, what else can we do to help students add the 2000-3000 new words a year that research suggests they need?  As with so many things, I found the first step was to decide I was going to commit the time to it.  Yet in spite of my deep commitment to word learning, I had to fight daily to make it a priority. This goal to “make time” for effective vocabulary instruction dominated my 25 years as a middle school ELA teaching and Learning Specialist. With the pressures of new standards and an ever increasing number of struggling readers, I had to think creatively and design new strategies. I studied the research and applied what I learned in my classroom.

As my passion for word knowledge led me and my husband to create our company, Word Lab Web, the evidence continued to mount up that background knowledge in the form of familiar words is the essential building block for reading comprehension. The gift of word knowledge is not a sideline to comprehension. It is the key ingredient. “…correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.”  (Hirsch, 2013).

In fact, vocabulary deficits are a primary cause of academic failure in grades 3 through 12 (Baker, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995). What I’ve learned is that the best approaches for building word knowledge involve involve interactive activities that promote discussion, access prior knowledge, differentiate and personalize the learning while providing practice using context clues and metacognition. With this in mind I want to share with you one of my favorite activities.

FREEBIE Activity

I call it a VOCABUTRIX, but formally called a Collaborative Semantic Feature Analysis Matrix, and it is easy to adopt. And because it encourages your students to talk and share ideas, they will enjoy the new focus. Your main challenge will be to justify (to yourself and others), the idea of spending more classroom time on word learning, and I intend to share with you more of the research you need to do just that, in subsequent blogs. Meanwhile, tell me in the comments section below what your biggest challenges are when teaching vocabulary. Is it lack of time, unmotivated students, too many struggling readers, or…? Please also share your successes! I look forward to hearing from you.

Download a copy of our VOCABUTRIX grid with instructions. Read more about the research behind it here .

Email me at if you have questions. I look forward to sharing more of my struggles and my research and ideas!


Baker, Scott K., Simmons, Deborah C., & Kameenui Edward J. (1995) Vocabulary Acquisition: Synthesis of the Research.
Retrieved from

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (2013) A Wealth of Words. Retrieved from


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If I had only known that word! or…How to Become a “Worder”

No Fun!
Why do we teach vocabulary as an add on, an annoying necessity, an interruption to reading? I certainly learned to approach looking-up-words as a pesky nuisance. Can we make the process of learning words from reading have its own identity and fun factor? Here’s my story of how I accidentally did just that.

A Story…
My husband and have been working on our Spanish. Every day, we sit down with a Spanish children’s novel and take turns reading and listening. Although we have very little training in grammar and verb tense, what prevents us from understanding, every time, are the words we don’t know.

Impatient at first, we did lots of guessing from context and hoped we were right. We viewed looking up all the words we didn’t know as an inconvenience that did not make enough difference. And besides, aren’t you supposed to learn new words from context? Only when we were desperate would we look up a word, and then we didn’t even write it down, assuming we would remember it. Boy we were wrong on all counts!

We quickly learned we had completely misinterpreted a majority of the events in the book, not to mention many of the characters. We decided to start over again.

This time, still resisting full devotion to “word-lookup” we looked up about 50% of the words we didn’t know. This was made easier by downloading a Spanish translating dictionary onto our phones. We wrote the definitions at the bottom of each page, numbering the words to match the definition number. Rather than ruining the reading, as we feared, it began to really be fun to dig in and truly understand the story and the characters. As we got comfortable with the rhythm of read, question, phone-lookup, write down, confirm meaning, we began to want to look up every word we were unsure of.

Now it was not like the type of fun you have just reading a book for pleasure, but fun in the sense that we could really feel we were learning and getting it. It was like completing a puzzle together. We filled the book up, sometimes cramming all the margins with definitions. Then we went back and read it a third time!  More surprises about what we missed the first two times!

As we continued this practice, with more books, we found some words repeated that we could remember from our previous exposures that we now seemed to “know” and others that we had to look up all over again, shaking our heads. But our Spanish was getting better!

So What?
Our first go around with reading a Spanish novel was as close as I will probably get to understanding how it must feel to have to read text that is too hard. How frustrating that must be for my struggling 6th grade readers. No one gives you extra time to start over again. No one comes around and says, “Hey, let’s team up and figure out these words together!” There are basically only two choices for these readers, limp along and pretend you got it, or give up and settle for learning from alternative, easier texts. Either way, you are “left behind.”

Why aren’t we making word learning a more satisfying experience in the classroom?  Why isn’t word learning a priority activity? Why aren’t students using their phones in class for instant access to word meanings, all the time?

I propose the practice of being a “Worder” be an integral part of being a “Reader.” Excitement over shared word learning combined with the easy access the cell phone now gives us could bring our reading classrooms to a whole new level of confidence.

What’s Next?
Download my Worder Nerds activity sheet to see how this process can work in your classroom. Instead of “dumbing down” texts for your students you can “smart up” their reading! The Worder Nerds activity comes with links to the research behind each step. This activity will help your students build differentiated word knowledge while building word enthusiasm, in other “words,” they’ll become Worder Nerds!

Most Importantly…

Share in the comments section below what challenges you have faced in making your classroom a place where learning words is an essential part of building knowledge and understanding from reading. Have you some particular successes you can share as well? I look forward to your comments!


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.