Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 1)

A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing the writer Junot Diaz give the keynote address at NCTE. His speech was a fierce and impassioned testament to both the power of the written word and of teachers to change student lives, and I left the hall determined to read his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which re-invents the American immigrant experience through the eyes of a nerdy Dominican boy who’s landed in New Jersey.

I wouldn’t be writing this, however, if I simply read the book. As it was, it sat unopened on my shelf for more weeks than I care to admit to because I was nervous about reading it. I’d heard that it was filled with Spanish, and not knowing Spanish, I was afraid I’d be frustrated by my inability to understand. And so the book sat there until I decided not to let fear rule my reading life. I cracked it open and immediately fell in love with the characters and Diaz’s sentences. And as for the Spanish, it wasn’t a problem. I could often get the gist from the context, and when that failed, I simply read on, so engaged and enamored with the voice and the story that those unknown words didn’t matter.

I share this because I think there’s a lesson about vocabulary here. Of course, we want to build our students’ word banks and foster an appreciation of language, especially for those learning English. But if we also want to build resilient readers who feel confident of their ability to tackle a text, we may want to reconsider how much vocabulary we introduce up front, aware that too much pre-teaching may actually undermine our students’ ability to become strong, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning unless we know all the words.

What’s needed, I think, is a balance between helping students acquire vocabulary  and helping them become stronger readers—and a recognition that those two things are not exactly the same. In a recent post, for instance, I looked at the opening of the nonfiction book Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd, which uses the word ‘pool’ on the very first page in a way I suspect many children are unfamiliar with. We could, of course, pre-teach the word so they don’t think starfish live in swimming pools. But if we use a text-based Know/Wonder chart and model its use with the first page, we could question the word instead of pre-teach it—as in “I know that starfish live in pools because the writer says that right here, but I wonder if this means swimming pools since I’ve never seen a starfish in a pool.” This would invite students to look out for clues in both the text and the pictures, with a dictionary consulted afterwards if more clarification was needed. And that hunt for clues would greatly increase the likelihood of them remembering the other meaning of the word.

To help students discover what I did when I finally dove into Oscar Wao, I also recommend that teachers give students the opportunity to see how much they can figure out from the words they do know, without getting hung up on the ones they don’t. Here, for instance, is the beginning of an article, “Can Animals Think” by Eugene Linden, that a 6th grade English Language Learner teacher was preparing to have her class read as part of a unit on animal intelligence:

The teacher worried there were too many words the students didn’t know and that those words would bog them down and impact their comprehension. But rather that pre-teaching them, we decided to see what would happen if we asked the students to work with a partner and highlight all the parts they could understand, which looked something like this:

She then asked the partners to re-read the paragraph with just the highlighted words, and in virtually every case, the students ‘got’ what was being described in a way that allowed them to continue engaging with the larger ideas in the article—and they were even able to posit the meaning of some of the unknown words. Then after they’d finished the article and discussed what they thought the writer had to say about the intelligence of animals, the teacher asked the class to vote on a handful of words they’d like to know, and those words became the focus of their vocabulary work for the week.

Depending on the word, this vocabulary work might include one or more of the strategies and tools Janet Allen offers in her wonderful book Inside Words, such as the Frayer Model, which asks students to think about how a new vocabulary word is similar and different to other words they know, and concept ladders, which invite students to dig into an abstract noun to better understand its causes, effects, uses and nuances. In this way, students have strategies that both help them learn vocabulary in a deep, more lasting way and to navigate texts with unfamiliar words with more resilience and confidence, knowing that that happens to every reader every once in a while.

Of course, there are times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. And so in Part 2 I’ll share how a group of high school teachers I recently worked with made decisions about which words to pre-teach and why as they prepared to incorporate more diverse complex texts into their curriculum. For now, though, I think what’s important to remember is that teaching students words is not the same as teaching them how to read—and that students need strategies and tools for both, along with lots of time to practice.

7 thoughts on “Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 1)

  1. I love your distinction around teaching vocabulary vs. teaching reading. I also love the 6th grade example where students highlighted what they knew. Not only was this a great way to make the extent to which readers rely on context visible to students but it was also instruction that operated from a strengths vs. deficit model (or growth vs. fixed mindset!)

    What amazing ownership for these students and how easy it would be to replicate this with other groups of students. I wonder how the bigger system of public education would shift if we consistently and constantly provided instruction based on student strengths and what they know vs. on what we perceive they don’t know? How might standardized testing change (or spontaneously combust 🙂 if this was our national paradigm? Still full of big ideas and dreams from our 2 summer days together!

    • It’s interesting that you used the word shift since I’ve been thinking about what I see as the invisible shifts behind the big six instructional shifts the Standards writers have identified. I just wish we could have as big of a national conversation around the need to shift from instruction based on deficits to instruction based on strengths as we have about shifting from mostly fiction to nonfiction. And we need more conversation about shifting from generic strategies to specific text-based strategies, which is how I view that example. But I’m glad that at least we’re having these conversations! And maybe in unanticipated ways we may even change the testing culture!

  2. What a great idea! I love that you used your own reading experience to inform your teaching. It seems to me the more we can do that, the more successful our lessons will be.

    • I cut my professional teeth in the late 80’s at the Teachers College Writing Project where we always tried to ground our instruction in authentic writing experiences. And it’s so interesting to me that we do that far more naturally in writing than we do in reading, where we’re tempted to pay more attention to research and trends than our own reading experiences. That’s not to say that research isn’t important, but we should be think about how it does or doesn’t correspond to our own experience because I believe every teacher can be a great teacher of reading if they take the time to really attend to what they do as readers. That can be our touchstone and our source of strength. So thanks for noticing & naming that!

  3. Pingback: Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 2) | To Make a Prairie

  4. Pingback: It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction | To Make a Prairie

  5. Pingback: On Shortcuts, Quick Fixes and Why They Often Don’t Work | To Make a Prairie

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