17 May 2014

How I Learned about Vocab Instruction

When we were in our senior year of college and not yet married,  I recall my husband asking one of our major English professors what he should do to improve his vocabulary in preparation for taking the GRE.  This professor did not suggest a weekly vocabulary quiz or vocabulary flashcards.  No, this professor suggested my husband read even more and read widely.  So, he did.  He began reading both nonfiction and fiction with more fervor.  We married immediately after college graduation and promptly ordered subscriptions to The New Yorker and The Atlantic and took turns reading each issue. Any time I read an article after my husband, I noticed his markings in the text as he carefully read and studied language in preparation for the GRE and graduate course work that would follow.  Clearly, this strategy worked because my husband went on to earn not only a Master's degree but also a PhD in literature.

Much of what we learned from our professors, I took with me to the secondary classroom.  Fortunately, my professors valued critical thinking, close reading, and thoughtful reflection, and those were the exact practices I explicitly taught in my classroom.  I did not require weekly vocabulary lists of words committed to memory, and I did not offer weekly vocabulary tests for students to regurgitate what they had memorized.  My approach to vocabulary instruction was much more subtle and embedded within the texts we read.

After leaving the classroom, I learned more about direct vocabulary instruction and learned that I was probably right not to require dictionary definitions be memorized and recalled each week, but I was wrong not to teach strategies for learning new vocabulary. While the subtle methods of learning vocabulary in context were likely appropriate for my students who were reading on or above grade level, I should not have expected the teenagers who struggled with reading to be as savvy and devoted to learning vocabulary in context as they read without showing them how.

In the three years I worked as a literacy consultant for the state department of education, I learned new vocabulary strategies based on research; these strategies I modeled in professional development settings with teachers who then took them to their classrooms full of students.

Since I never learned many specific strategies for explicitly teaching vocabulary prior to leaving the high school classroom, I can't blame others for not knowing weekly vocabulary lists to memorize and recall on tests is an ineffective way to teach vocabulary. I've learned some schools even have policies requiring teachers to use vocab workbooks with weekly lists.  Still others are creating an entire year's worth of vocabulary lists, one for each week without ever meeting the students or knowing which words students know and don't know.  I've seen these lists on school websites.
An unidentified example of an ineffective approach to vocabulary 

The memorize and recall approach to vocabulary instruction and assessment is disheartening and ineffective for helping students improve their vocabulary for reading, writing, speaking and life.  In fact, Dr. Kimberly Tyson sites this as one of several fake vocabulary practices. Let's not fool ourselves, our students,  and our parents into thinking we are "tough" teachers because we assign "weekly vocab work."  Instead, I believe, together, we can share better strategies and help people who were like me when I was in the classroom (unaware of approaches other than frequent reading and  language study.)

Below are a few of the vocabulary resources I recommend for shaking up the weekly vocab test approach.


I've written about vocabulary previously, so you know this is a hot button topic for me.

An amazing resource is this blog by Dr. Kimberly Tyson.  Be sure to check out the awesome infographic, too.

Another great blog post titled Doing it Differently:  Tips for Teaching Vocabulary is by Rebecca Alber on Edutopia.

One of my favorite recent finds comes from the Massachusetts Reading Project.  It's titled: Research-based Practices in Vocabulary Instruction:  An Analysis of What Works in Grades PreK-12.

Find a link here to a summary of research articles where you can read the summaries or access the actual research at Reading Rockets.

Adlit.org is a site I learned about when I was working at the state department of education.

How do you teach vocabulary? What strategies can you share?