Are you teaching vocabulary the right way?

Yes, there’s a right way, and yes, there’s a wrong way.

Thought for the day:
Is it better to start a unit with all the vocabulary, prior to exploring concepts
to provide vocabulary once it becomes necessary, after exploring the concepts
Is there a happy medium I’m missing?

msclancey (@msclancey) September 18, 2019 (longtime fan of the blog)

As a single question, the tweet above would be, “When should you teach vocabulary in a unit?”

As Daniel H. Pink points out in his life-changing book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, humans tend to ask questions concerning who, what, why and how. Unfortunately, we rarely focus on when. So when (haha) I trawled through the research on this question, I came up empty handed.

To my surprise, even upon expanding my reading to vocabulary best practices, I found out we don’t really know much.

So, as an answer to our reader question, here are the top tips for teaching words. These are focused on vocabulary in the content-areas, but the ideas apply to language vocab too.

When: throughout the unit and as often as possible

If there is one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that direct vocabulary instruction is essential.

And if there is one other thing everyone agrees on, it’s that definitions are not enough.

Specifically, verbally explaining the meaning of a word, or giving synonyms is more effective compared to giving dictionary-style definitions, or having students infer meaning from context. (Students can be taught to use context to infer meaning, but it takes longer, and often produces only marginal benefits) (Miller & Gildea 1987).

In the beginning: build background knowledge

The vocabulary a student learns depends on their prior exposure to the words, and on their previous knowledge about the topic. Therefore, do what you can to activate some of that prior knowledge.

Research varies, but teaching morphemes (roots, prefixes and suffixes) seems helpful, probably.

Technique: Rate Your Words (Young 2005)

At the start of the unit, students go through the vocabulary list you made and rate how well they know each word using 4 categories: know, almost know, have seen before, and don’t know at all. Make them keep the page, and they’ll have a metacognitive tool they can use to track their progress.

During: build definitions and meaning in the most real contexts possible

This means real life, hands-on exposure is best, but pictures, videos and vivid stories work too (Gregg & Skeres 2006; Schmidt, Gillen, Zollo & Stone 2002). You’ve primed everyone with the vocabulary lists early in the unit, and now you teach the words in the context of a meaningful subject-matter lesson. This is where you use the second part of the tweet: “provide vocabulary once it becomes necessary, after exploring the concepts“.

One of the easiest and most natural ways we learn new words is called fast mapping, in which one powerful exposure to a word teaches you the meaning. (The classic example (Carey & Bartlett 1978) was the experimenter asking a kindergartener to pass the chromium tray. “Not the blue one, the chromium one.” One and six weeks after this single exposure, students knew chromium was a colour, and some even remembered it was greenish.)

Like anything that requires memory, the more emotional or rich an experience, the easier it will be to remember.

After: Surface level activities like puzzles, flashcards, and fill-in-the-blanks

LOL no, not very effective if you want students to actually remember the words (Harmon, Hedrick & Fox 2000; Harmon, Hedrick & Wood 2005).

After: Repeated, authentic practice, especially discussion

Much of vocabulary learning is associative learning (learning through linking ideas, like words to sounds, pictures, feelings, and other words). Discussion facilitates associative learning. Requiring students to talk using the keywords enhances comprehension and achievement, especially if students are collaborating or arguing an opinion (Hake 1998; Osborne 2010).

An example of a definition map. You might also include space for an illustration. From

Technique: Vocabulary Posters (Iwasiw 2007)

Split the class into groups, and have each group complete a concept definition map for one word as a large poster. (A definition map has 3 guiding questions for the term: What is it? What is it like? What are some examples? You might also ask for a drawing of the concept, and a comparison to another concept).

Once each group has finished their poster, groups switch posters. Each group now has 5 minutes to prepare before teaching the word to the class. The researcher found switching posters reduced students’ reluctance to present.

One thing you probably didn’t realize

Teaching vocabulary, as in the keywords, is important, but you also need to teach the words used to define the keywords. Researchers found teachers often overlook these words, wrongly believing students already know them (Snow 2010).

Examples of words you need to teach:

  • characteristic, feature, attribute
  • significant
  • application
  • cause
  • effect
  • concept
  • product of
  • compared to

As an example, here is Google’s physics definition of force:

an influence tending to change the motion of a body or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.

In order to understand the definition of the keyword, you also need to know influence, tend, body, stress and stationary . So realize that when you’re asking students to learn 1 new word, there might be 5 other words built in.

Conclusion / tl;dr

Teach vocabulary as often as you can, and make it as real and collaborative as you can.

Further Reading

Carey, S., & Bartlett, E. (1978). Acquiring a single new word. Papers and Reports on Child Language Development, 15, 17 – 29.

Gregg, M., & Sekeres, D. C. (2006). Supporting children’s reading of expository text in the geography classroom. The Reading Teacher60(2), 102-110.

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics66(1), 64-74.

Harmon, J. M., Hedrick, W. B., & Fox, E. A. (2000). A content analysis of vocabulary instruction in social studies textbooks for grades 4-8. The Elementary School Journal100(3), 253-271.

Harmon, J. M., Hedrick, W. B., & Wood, K. D. (2005). Research on vocabulary instruction in the content areas: Implications for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly21(3), 261-280.

Iwasiw, T. (2007). The Language of Science: Vocabulary Instruction in the Inclusion Classroom. Mathematical and Computing Sciences Masters. Paper 32.

William & Mary School of Education. (2015). A “Word” About Vocabulary Considerations Packet.

Miller, G. A., & Gildea, P. M. (1987). How children learn words. Scientific American257(3), 94-99.

Osborne, J. (2010). Arguing to learn in science: The role of collaborative, critical discourse. Science328(5977), 463-466.

Schmidt, P. R., Gillen, S., Zollo, T. C., & Stone, R. (2002). Literacy learning and scientific inquiry: Children respond. The Reading Teacher55(6), 534-548.

Snow, C. E. (2010). Academic language and the challenge of reading for learning about science. Science328(5977), 450-452.

Young, E. (2005). The Language of Science, The Lanuage of Students: Bridging the Gap with Engaged Learning Vocabulary Strategies. Science Activities42(2), 12-17.