Vocabulary Development. Would you believe me if I told you I took a whole class with this title in high school? It was an English elective that was rumored to be an easy credit, and I assumed it would be a great counterbalance to the AP courses already in my schedule. The teacher was close to retirement, and while I would learn to love him, he could be a bit of a loose cannon if you weren't quite living up to expectations. He had high expectations and each week came with a list of 20+ new academic vocabulary words from the SAT and ACT prep lists. We were expected to master them all within the week. Needless to say, it was not the blow-off class I anticipated.
Why do I tell you all this? Despite being just as hard (if not harder) than all my AP classes, Vocabulary Development turned out to be a class that has been the most useful long after my high school days were over. It is probably the only high school class I took that I still use my learning to this day.
But not all high schools have a class like this, and academic vocabulary is a huge gap for many students long before it comes time for standardized assessments. So how and why should we build more opportunities for vocabulary instruction into our already full schedules?
Why I explicitly teach academic language & vocabulary to my struggling learners
While I had the luxury of taking Vocabulary Development in high school, so many students are struggling with academic vocabulary in elementary school. During my time as an instructional coach for interventionists supporting struggling learners, I saw numerous students who were failing because they didn't know the terms being used.
In fact, I even worked with several groups of students who had failed their state testing and, by only focusing on academic vocabulary during our time together, they were able to pass the second administration.
For this reason, I make a focused effort to teach vocabulary in my classroom through authentic interactions and direct instruction and I encourage my team to do so as well.
Today I want to share the research behind my experiences and explain why vocabulary is probably one of the biggest factors impacting your standardized test scores.
What the research says about vocabulary
1. Research has shown that 5th graders pick up between 1,000 and 5,000 new words in a year (Stahl, 1999).
Pretty amazing, right? That is a TON of vocabulary.
However, think about it from a slightly different angle, and it becomes terrifying. The students gaining 5,000 words during the course of that year have a 5x larger gain than the student only gaining 1,000.
If that continues across several school years, by the time two children at the far extremes leave middle school there can be an enormous difference between them.
Which of these students is most likely to be able to read grade-level texts better? Write higher quality compositions? Have strong, content-related conversations?
And the differences you see in the table don't account for any differences in vocabulary that the students come in with at the beginning of the year.
2. Vocabulary has a big impact on reading comprehension.
Not that shocking, right? Knowing more words helps you understand what you read better.
Whenever I am reading with students, I often have them stop to explain what they've read. More often than not it is just a word or two that has thrown off the meaning of the whole paragraph.
You might be surprised to know that when researchers looked at struggling readers in 2nd grade and up, their language comprehension skills (aka their vocabulary) was so low that it actually prevented them from getting anything out of most grade-level independent reading.
When we can build a child's vocabulary, we are really teaching comprehension in an indirect way.
3. Struggling readers won't pick up vocabulary just by reading books.
I was totally guilty of pushing context clues my first few years of teaching, and I was bewildered when my students weren't picking up all the rich vocabulary I was exposing them to. I mean, how could that be?
Over the years I naturally started tailoring my vocabulary instruction to be more direct with repeated opportunities to interact and use the vocabulary. As a result, my students began using the words we were learning.
The research supports my trial-and-error discovery. While most teachers do not explicitly teach vocabulary (the research says as little as 1.5 minutes of a reading lesson focused on vocabulary), it is truly the way to help the students add that word to their word bank.
4. Word learning happens best when done through multiple means.
Students need opportunities to build words into their schema and to do that they need numerous exposures. They cannot just read the word in context and be done.
Research supports introducing and exposing students to vocabulary through multiple modalities, as well as hooking it to their prior knowledge, is huge in helping kids make gains. This can include reading, writing, non-verbal representation (drawing or acting), classifying words by part of speech, exploring semantic connections (synonyms, antonyms, word webs), and discussion (Marzano, 2004).
5. Dictionaries don't cut it.
Students need clear, child-friendly definitions (Massachusetts Reading Association, 2011). They need opportunities to write their own definition after several exposures, and they need opportunities to experience the word in context if we want our vocabulary instruction to stick.
While I may have learned quite a few words from my vocabulary development class, we studied 20-30 words per week for 9 weeks of instruction. We spent a lot of time looking words up in the dictionary, and well, we did a lot of activities that go against our current knowledge of how to make vocabulary stick.
As a result, I still come across words regularly that I know we “learned” in my class. However, I lack the definitions for many of them because they were never connected to my experiences or other words I knew well.
Vocabulary instruction needs to be accessible to kids or it is just a waste of time!
Vocabulary is great…but I've got a lot to teach!
I totally get that. The number of standards we are currently teaching is a pressing weight on any teacher's shoulders. I found that morning work (or right after lunch) was a perfect time to build in 5-10 minutes of vocabulary work.
How I created an easy-to-implement system for teaching vocabulary
Step 1: Word selection
Using a number of resources, I identified words that would give me a good bang for my buck in terms of covering a variety of settings (socially and academically) and would help my students build the word bank they needed for success on state testing.
Step 2: Planning scaffolded exposure
Then I designed a set of activities that incorporated the best practice standards. It was important to me that the set was both useful and efficient since I am always pressed for time.
Step 3: Testing and Adjusting
After testing it out, I made a few additional adjustments to help boost the mastery students had with these words. I also added quarterly quizzes to monitor how students were retaining their newly acquired vocabulary.
The results spoke for themselves.
I highly recommend that you consider your students' vocabulary needs, and start a set of activities in your classroom. It was fun to hear my students begin to notice these words in daily conversation and to start incorporating them into their own speech.
I also found that my students had a better understanding of the questions and passages we were reading. For a sacrifice of 5-10 minutes per day, it was totally worth it.
How to fit vocabulary into your routine.
The research is clear, and we know vocabulary is a huge predictor of success…in life, in school, and even on those dreaded standardized tests.
When we identify high power words and make sure our students know them, we help give them get the edge they need for success in our classroom and for years to come.
Find time in your schedule to give some daily instruction to those critical academic vocabulary words.
Build them into your bell ringer or dismissal routine, find a few minutes as you prepare for lunch, or (even better) during your language arts block. Your students will be better for it.
The time-saving solution to vocabulary instruction that sticks
In order to help teach crucial Tier 2 vocabulary words that are commonly on standardized assessments and within academic tasks, I created a daily warm-up that could fit into the small gaps in the school day.
Designed to take 10 minutes or less, Daily Academic Vocabulary is an easy way to give students repeated practice with the words they'll need to know to be successful.
Unlike other programs that focus on long lists of words and only develop a surface level understanding, Daily Academic Vocabulary was designed to help students deeply understand these critical terms by teaching a single word each week and scaffolding the instruction to achieve mastery.