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Teacher to Teacher: What About Vocabulary?

By Lynne R. Dorfman

The investigation of the meaning of words is the beginning of wisdom.  – Antisthenes

 Do you remember getting a list of vocabulary words each week?  We had to look up the meaning and part of speech and use the word in a sentence. Then there was a test on Friday. Although I memorized the spelling of the words and their meanings to do well on the quizzes, most of the words did not stay with me. Often, the words on the lists had little or no relationship with one another. The words were just a random list – and such a list and method to learn new words is inefficient and ineffective.

Words are symbols for concepts, and readers bring meaning to the symbols. Readers develop schema from their reading experiences, and words will have many associations. Associations with each word’s most general meaning that most users share is called denotative, while associations not directly connected to a word’s denotative meaning are called connotative. For example, the word “hand” might connote horse trainers, veterinarians, and equestrians. As students move up the grades, new concepts are added each year.  Flanigan (Chester County Reading Association presentation, April 2017) suggests that the average high school senior’s vocabulary is about 40,000 words.  That suggests learning about 3000 words per grade level.   It makes good sense that our students are able to distinguish which meaning is intended within the context of the reading or discussion/lecture, and must account for and build on the students’ prior experiences.

How do we help students grow a love of language and words while growing their vocabularies? The authors of Vocbulary at the Core: Teaching the Common Core Standards suggest that teachers make use of graphic organizers and word games in their classrooms. They talk about building in opportunities for deep processing, teaching derivations, collocations, idioms, register (level of formality in speech with others; register depends on the situation, location, topic discussed, and other factors) and gender.  The authors tell us that to truly know a word, we should know many different aspects of the word including (but not limited to) the following:

  • spelling
  • pronunciation
  • meaning(s)
  • derivations (how words take on prefixes and suffixes to make new forms)
  • collocations: groups of words that form acceptable phrases (For example: “do the dishes” or “make the bed”)
  • register: (from formal to informal to slang)
  • idioms: phrases whose meaning cannot be discerned by looking up individual words (a figurative meaning – not a literal meaning. When you “tie the knot,” you are getting married and when it’s “raining cats and dogs,” it is raining very hard).
  • opposites (antonyms)
  • words that mean almost the same thing (synonyms)
  • gender: which words or collocations sound more feminine or masculine
  • intentions: how a word can change meanings by changing intonation and gestures

In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2002), the authors suggest that “the nuances, subtleties, and characteristics of a word’s role in the language can only be understood through repeated exposures to the word in a variety of ways (100).  They contend that truly learning a word means that you can define it in your own words and be able to use it in several contexts, not just the context of the text where the word was first introduced.  Beck, McKeown, and Kucan also state that tier two words must be taught with friendly definitions (often, not found in dictionaries). Making connections between words and developing word systems is an effective way to learn words and remember them.  Flanigan (CCRA, April 2017) advised his educator audience that “All definitions are NOT equal!”  He suggests using the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English at for clear definitions written with about 2000 common words that students will be able to understand.

Flanigan and Greenwood (2007) talk about the four kinds of vocabulary found in a reading selection. Some words should be selected to be carefully pre-taught before the students read a selection. These words are essential to the understanding of the text. I have always found that this list should be limited to about six words. Some words that fall into this category can be introduced quickly. There will be other words that students should eventually learn, but they are not essential to understand the reading selection. These words can be revisited in after-reading discussions and even linked to the next day’s work, if applicable. Finally, there will be rare words that are unknown to the students and not closely connected to the content of the selection. These words are not taught at all. Flanigan (Chester County Reading Association presentation, April 2017) discussed principles of sound vocabulary instruction:

  • active and engaged
  • immersed in words (listen, read, write, speak)
  • repetition – experience words across variety of rich contexts – about 10 to 12 times

So, how can we make new words a part of our everyday vocabulary?

  1. Use new word in your everyday speech with friends and family.
  1. Use the new word when you are writing answer questions and in your journals as you reflect on key concepts.
  2. Add and layer meaning as you encounter the new word in your reading and rereading.
  1. As you read, think about what you learned that is new about the word’s meaning and tell yourself what you learned.
  1. Make connection with your own life and the real world. Try to tie the word to an important issue, event, or larger concept.

Our students are naturally curious about language. How do you learn new words? How do you build in vocabulary instruction into your daily practice?

Lynne R. Dorfman is a co-author of Mentor Texts: Teaching
Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6
(2nd edition, May 2017). She is a co-director
of the PA Writing & Literature Project and a proud memberLynne and Einstein
of the PAWLP blog team.  Lynne is currently writing Welcome
to Writing Workshop
with Stacey Shubitz. Find her at or at the Writing Project. The PA Writing Project’s Summer Institute changed her life as a teacher, reader, and writer! Lynne is a 1989 fellow.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. You hit upon so many important points. We need to foster a love of words not turn away out students.


    May 14, 2017

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