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).