Becoming Strategic With Words

“In vocabulary acquisition, a small early advantage grows into a much bigger one unless we intervene very intelligently to help the disadvantaged student learn words at an accelerated rate (Hirsch 2003).”  An early disadvantage has long reaching academic effects.  Hart and Risley (2003) noted that vocabulary learners engaged in direct instruction experienced short term gains, but they did not transfer into long term independent word learners.  Hirsch (2003, p.10) stated that the struggles are not only with disadvantaged students, since overall scores on the NEAP are low across the board.  My father’s childhood reading history is a testament to this.  He is an extensive reader as an adult, but had tremendous difficulties with reading and math as a student.  Just how can we help students bridge gaps in their word learning experiences, while they are with us, rather than working through it later and life, or not at all?

The CCSS demands students to dig deeper.  In order to get my students to traverse Bloom’s Taxonomy from knowledge, comprehension, application, and so on, students need to start with word knowledge.  My daily schedule has integrated word study periods, where students have time to read, discuss, apply, and play with new words.  Blachowicz and Fisher suggest (from Mandel-Morrow, 2011) that teachers should be models of word learning.  As a teacher, I exemplify my love and interest in words.  I might say things such as, “What do you think this means?” or “Based on some of the other words in this sentence, what do you think ‘representation’ means?”  During this introductory spark, I try to direct the conversation towards student relevance, but far from abstract or tangential musings.  This effort is what Blachowicz and Fisher refer to as personalizing words.

I continue introducing words through read alouds, pictures, websites, and shared reading.  We highlight  words in our notes, discuss synonyms, meanings, and put them in our own words.  Students create their own word study activities where they put the definitions in their own words and pictures.  They create digital presentations and play games with the words.  In one game, we use inconsequential competition games such as “Talk A Mile A Minute” ( where students play a game similar to 100,000 Pyramid on content specific vocabulary.  They take turns trying to describe the definition or characteristics of a word and the other partner has to guess, then they switch.  The game can be played until each student is proficient, and it can be conducted in small group for selected students based on their assessment data and vocabulary performance.

Of course, I have further work and study to grow in this area.  One theme common among the readings on vocabulary instruction seem to be that words can be learned incidentally and by explicit, definitional instruction.  In our classrooms, we can work to create word rich environments with opportunities for students to learn about words both ways.  We want students to be strategic when reading, to increase comprehension and consider which strategies they will use to make meaning.  With the variety of effective word learning strategies available, we must also model strategic thinking when it comes to learning words.

Readings Reviewed for this post:

  • Blachowicz & Fisher (2011) in Mandel-Morrow and Gambrell (2011), chapter 9: “Best Practices in Vocabulary Instruction: Revisited” (p. 224-249)
  • Hart & Risley (2003) “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3”
  • Hirsch (2003) “Reading comprehension requires knowledge– of words and the world”
  • Chall & Jacobs (2003) “The Classic Study on Poor Children’s Fourth Grade Slump”.

About wmartin4

I’m a husband, father of three, fifth grade teacher, writer, blogger, guitarist, drummer, staff camp director, rogue tech trainer, and a watcher of sunsets. I write about many subjects, but I’m currently posting articles related to education and technology.
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