The Burning Vocabulary Question Series: Which words do I teach?

During the first part of this series, I outlined specific places where authentic vocabulary words could come from.  That list includes:

  1. Your current mentor texts
  2. Student’s independent reading novels
  3. Student’s writing

So, now, you’ve put systems into place and you’ve acquired a bunch of individual words to choose from for explicit vocabulary instruction.  You are most likely thrilled to have so many words at your fingertips!  However, when confronted with a long list of “good” vocabulary words, we know that it would be impossible to teach them all in an already packed school day.  We know that of all the possible words, we must select a small number of words for explicit instruction, but that can be frustrating.  Deciding which words to teach is challenging!  Similar to the lack of information regarding what words to teach discussed during the last post, the Common Core State Standards also do not say anything about how to identify the specific academic and domain-specific words to teach.

There are various types of words to consider for instruction:

  • words that are essential for comprehension of a specific text
  • words that are important for developing a broader reading and writing vocabulary (but are not directly linked to a specific text)
  • common words that students with a limited vocabulary are unlikely to know
  • words that represent themes in narratives or key concepts in informational texts (but are not included in the selection)
  • words with important structural features

Teachers are left wondering,

“Which words do I teach?”

Since we are working with words that have been authentically gathered from individual classroom sources, Beck and McKeown’s tier system would work best for selecting words for vocabulary instruction.  This system sorts words into three tiers or levels, as pictured below.

Created by Lindsay Barna
Created by Lindsay Barna

Beck and McKeown recommend teaching Tier 2 words.  Unfortunately, there is not a magical list of Tier 2 words (sigh), nor do Tier 2 words have grade-level designations.  However, Linda Kucan’s article “What is Most Important to Know About Vocabulary?” (The Reading Teacher, Vol 65, Issue 6, 2012) gives guidelines for evaluating if words fall into the Tier 2 category.

Evaluation Criteria for Tier 2 Words

  • Students do not ordinarily use the word or hear the word in daily speech, but it is often encountered in books.
  • Students have knowledge or experience that would help them understand the word.
  • The word frequently appears in texts across a variety of content areas.
  • The word is useful or important for comprehending and writing about important ideas in a selection
  • The word can be worked with in a variety of ways (students can build rich representations of the word as well as connect it to other known words)

Here is a list of possible vocabulary words I pulled from Mrs. Mack by Patricia Polacco (guided reading level P).  Which word would you select for explicit instruction using the criteria outlined above?

Mrs Mack Vocabulary

I chose shabby, contours, coaxed, lurched, plunge, mount, yearned, and summoned. But remember, there is no “correct” answer.  Selecting one word over another is up to each teacher and which words s/he thinks will get the most bang for their buck within the individual classroom.  I chose these words because they will help students when they are reading and writing about ideas from the text and are words that are seen often in other texts. Many of these words can also be used in multiple contexts, so students will be able to construct high-level mental representations of each word. Some of the remaining words, especially those pertaining to horseback riding, are potential Tier 3 words.

I outlined how to do this selection process with a class mentor text.  We can use this same approach with words that have been spotlighted from student writing and suggested by students from their independent novels.

Now you have a clearer view of how to select vocabulary words, but you may still be plagued by one small nagging question,

“How many words should I choose?”

The total number of words to teach students weekly will depend on the actual students sitting in your classroom.  Your judgement and instructional goals will play a large part in the amount of words chosen.  Think about your students’ existing vocabularies and general language skills,  as well as the complexity of the average text experienced (by students during independent reading and through class readings).

A good target would be for students to learn about 500-600 words per school year.  Very roughly, that would translate to 12-15 words a week.  But fret not- this does not have to happen solely within your literacy block!  We can assume that students are learning words in other content areas besides literacy.  When learning about Landforms in  Social Studies, students will learn word such as plain and plateau, or in a math lesson, students might learn the word product or quotient.  So, it might be reasonable to say that in literacy, students should be explicitly taught 10 words a week.

I might pull 3 words from those suggested by students from their independent novels, 3 words spotlighted in student writing, and 4 from the current mentor text each week.

Once you’ve narrowed down your word selections, you are ready for the final step of the process- the actual instruction.  Best practices in vocabulary instruction will be the last installment in this series.  You’ll finally be able to put this behind-the-scenes work into action!

How many vocabulary words do you teach a week?  What words would you have chosen from my list from Mrs. Mack by Patricia Polacco?  Leave me a comment!

Let’s keep the conversation going-


The Burning Vocabulary Question Series: Where do vocabulary words come from?

Possible vocabulary words are everywhere.  We are bombarded with endless possibilities of words to teach our students.  The words come from mentor texts, independent novels, word lists, district mandated words, academic words, reading programs, vocabulary programs…the list goes on and teachers feel the pressure.

As a Common Core state (per se), NJ teachers are working their hardest to meet the increased expectations of national standards.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) put heavy emphasis on vocabulary, by making it an anchor standard at all levels K-12.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Language

Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

I do not disagree with the CCSS attention toward vocabulary.  I understand that a greater vocabulary makes more complex texts accessible to students and, in turn, increases their reading levels.  And we are all familiar with the correlation between reading, vocabulary, and test scores- made clear with this popular info-graphic.


But for all its gusto, what the CCSS does not do, is tell us what the appropriate academic and domain-specific words are for each grade level. It is left to the discretion of teachers and/or curriculum planners to determine words appropriate for individual classes or grades, and this is a daunting task when faced with the wide variety of sources out there.  In all the hustle and bustle of daily classroom instruction, it is this sort of huge task that can easily get put to the wayside.  So, this post offers suggestions to the first burning question about vocabulary instruction:

“Where do I get the vocabulary words to teach my students?”

A firm belief I have is that prescribed word lists or programs are not the answer.

Keeping the belief of the workshop model in mind, vocabulary words taught in the classroom should be as authentic as possible.  Students need to see these words coming from themselves and their experiences.  The relationship between ownership, motivation, and engagement is not a secret.  When students are invested in the words they are learning, vocabulary instruction will be more meaningful and you will have a very clear answer to the “Why are we learning this?” question.

My suggestion is to pull words from the following three places.

1. Your current mentor text

These would be completely teacher-selected words chosen from the mentor text that you are currently using to support your teaching.  These are the words that you would have the most control over.

2. Student’s independent reading novels

Since choice is a large part of the workshop model, it is important that students have the opportunity to provide input on the words they want to learn.  By allowing students to choose the words they will learn, you are tapping into their sense of ownership.

Greg Feezell, in his article “Robust Vocabulary Instruction in a Readers’ Workshop” featured in The Reading Teacher (Vol.66, Issue 3, 2012) suggests encouraging (as opposed to requiring) students to submit words to a “Word Box”.  These might be words students find interesting or words that they wish to understand better.  They can be chosen from texts read during independent reading time, at home, or in other subjects.  Using a submission process allows you, as the teacher, to have final veto power over which words are chosen for instruction- a valuable aspect of this system.

3. Student’s writing

Have you ever noticed how when you spotlight a single student, the level of the entire class is lifted?  We do this for good behavior.  “Johnny, I like how you are sitting up in your chair, ready to learn.”  Suddenly, the whole class grows taller as they work to emulate Johnny and seek our approval and praise.  Kids want to be their best selves, but sometimes they need to be reminded of just how great they can be.  This method works to tap into that phenomena.

While working with Teachers College Reading and Writing staff developer, Emily Strang-Campbell, in some of our district’s 4th-8th grade classrooms,  a technique that spotlighted student vocabulary use in their writing was introduced.  During independent writing time, when students were writing fast and furious, Emily walked the room to note students that had used strong vocabulary in their writing.  During the mid-workshop interruption she gave selected students a shout-out compliment and started a list of their words on the board.  As the students went back to work, Emily suggested that everyone push themselves and try to use one of the strong words listed or any other strong word they know in their writing during the final stretch of independent writing time that day.  You would have been amazed with what the students accomplished! The power of a compliment.

We can tap into this and  choose vocabulary words for instruction from the words that were spotlighted from student writing.  Imagine the power these words would have for students, coming from the pens of their own classmates!

These sources give you valuable, authentic vocabulary words that students will be invested in.  The next step of the process is choosing which specific words to teach from these sources.  My second post of this series will offer suggestions to do just that!

Are there are any other authentic places where you pull vocabulary words from for instruction?  I would love to hear from you!

Let’s keep the conversation going-