Vocabulary Instruction
WV Title I Directors’ Conference
March 10-12, 2009
Presented by Jane Massi
Four Types of Vocabulary
Listening – Words we understand when
others talk to us.
Speaking – Words we use when we talk to
Reading – Words we know when we see them
in print (sight words and words we
can decode).
Writing – Words we use when we write.
Registers of Language
Frozen – Always the same
 Formal – Standard syntax and word
 Consultative – Not as formal, but
standard in sentence use
 Casual – Syntax incomplete
 Intimate – Between lovers; twins
(Joos, 1967).
Language Statistics
The number of words heard by children ages 1-3
•Welfare Households – 10 million
•Working Class Households – 20 million
•Professional Households – 30 million
(Graves & Slater, 1987)
Research on Vocabulary
Vocabulary knowledge is one of the best
indicators of verbal ability, reading
achievement and success in school.
Vocabulary difficulty strongly influences the
readability of text.
Teaching vocabulary of a selection can
improve students’ comprehension of that
(Beck, et al. 1992).
Research on Vocabulary
Growing up in poverty can seriously
restrict the vocabulary that children
learn before beginning school and
makes attaining an adequate
vocabulary a challenging task.
 Disadvantaged students are likely to
have substantially smaller vocabularies
than their more advantaged peers.
(Graves & Slater, 1987).
Research on Vocabulary
Lack of vocabulary can be a crucial factor
underlying the school failure of
disadvantaged students.
Students learn approximately 3,000 to 4,000
words each year, accumulating a reading
vocabulary of approximately 18,000 words by
the end of elementary school and 40,000
words by the end of high school.
(Smith, 1941).
Research on Vocabulary
Some students learn an average of 8 words
per day. Others learn as little as one or two.
Words can be known at different levels of
Directly teaching word meanings does not
adequately reduce the gap between students
with poor versus rich vocabularies. It is
crucial for students to learn strategies for
learning word meanings independently.
(Miller, 1978).
Research on Vocabulary
The development of strong reading skills is
the most effective word learning strategy
available. However, those students who are
in greatest need of vocabulary acquisition
interventions tend to be the same students
who read poorly and fail to engage in the
amount of reading necessary to learn large
numbers of words. [Matthew Effect]
(Beck, et al. 2002).
Research on Vocabulary
One study found that out of 4, 469 minutes
of reading instruction, only 19 minutes were
devoted to direct vocabulary instruction.(Nagy,
Another study found that 3rd, 4th and 5th
grade teachers spent an average of 1.67
minutes on vocabulary per reading lesson and
that many teachers spent no time. (Hart & Risley,
Research on Vocabulary
Studies estimate that of 100 unfamiliar
words met in reading, only 5-15 words
are learned in context. (Nagy, et al. 1985)
Becoming interested and aware of
words is not a likely outcome from the
way instruction is typically handled,
which is to have students look up
definitions in a dictionary (Scott et al., 1998)
What can we do to solve this
Make effective vocabulary instruction a
high priority in the educational system.
 Make vocabulary instruction robust,
vigorous, strong and powerful to be
Reading materials in schools equal
100,000 words. If students acquire 7-8
words a day = 40,000 they know by the
end of high school, we cannot teach
every word! Depth of learning would
not occur.
Multiple Ways to Process New Words
Associate new words with known
 Use new words in a sentence.
 Match definitions to new words.
 Use new words in different contexts.
 Provide students with multiple
exposures to new words.
When teaching vocabulary,
Teach new subject matter vocabulary in
context BEFORE students’ initial reading of
the new material.
Explain words in terms of relationships –word
families, structural analysis, roots and affixes
Constantly direct students’ attention to the
power of words and nuances of meaning
When teaching vocabulary,
Help the class foster a respect for the
well-chosen word and the well-turned
 Teach your students definite forms or
patterns for succinctly stating
Implicit vocabulary acquisition
o When students engage in rich extensive
oral interactions
o When students are read to
o When students read and discuss what
they’ve read
 Explicit vocabulary acquisition
o Vocabulary activities specifically
designed to teach new words
Explicit vocabulary strategies
Use information and narrative texts
Promote thinking and extend discourse
Encourage use of novel words
Access to print
Semantic mapping
Teach word parts
Teach word origin (older students)
Use graphic organizers
When teaching vocabulary,
Rely solely on incidental approaches;
but avoid drill.
 Teach roots, affixes in isolation.
 Make definitions more difficult than the
words to be defined.
 Forget the different ways of
approaching definitions – analogies,
synonyms, antonyms, etc.
Do not give students lists of words to
look up in a dictionary under the guise
of vocabulary instruction.
 This is only dictionary work, not
vocabulary instruction.
 Students learn the words for the test
Dictionaries use an Aristotelian format
that includes: a genus (the class to
which the word belongs) and a
differentia (how the word differs from
others in its class)
 Example: fissure – a narrow opening
(class) produced by cleaveage
Scott and Nagy (1997) report the results of
many research studies that show that
students cannot use conventional definitions
to learn words.
Example from dictionary: redress – set right,
remedy. “King Arthur tried to redress wrongs
in his kingdom”
Student writes: “The redress for getting well
when you’re sick is to stay in bed.”
Dictionary Definitions
Weak Differentiation
 Vague Language
 A More Likely Interpretation
 Multiple Pieces of Information
“Rare” Words
50 % of text = 107 of the most
common words
 Another 45% of text = 5,000 words
 So 95% of text = 5,107 words!
 “Rare” words make up the remaining
5% = 83,000 words
(Hayes & Ahrens, 1988)
“Rare” Words
“Rare” words carry most of the
CONTENT of the text. The other 95%
is the glue.
Rare Words/Thousand
Abstracts of scientific articles
Popular Magazines
Comic Books
Bestselling Novels
Children’s Books
Cartoon Shows
Courtroom Expert Witness
Prime-time Adult TV shows
Prime-time Children’s shows
Conversations of college
graduates to friends
Preschool Books
Context Limits
Context may provide some information.
Context may confuse the reader.
Multiple measures are necessary for
context to be effective.
Four Levels of Context Usefulness
Direct: The dog bit the man; he screamed
and yelled, “Ouch, ouch!”
General: My brother is a pest. He takes my
pencil; he mimics my voice; he puts on my
hat; he annoys me.
Non-directive: Not a morsel was left for the
small mouse.
Misdirective: The leisurely pace of the class
hike made Mary grumpy.
(Beck,et al 1983)
Types of Semantic Clues
Definition – The vole, a small rodent, has a short tail.
Antonym – Sue was adroit but Bill was clumsy.
Synonym – The soup was hot—scalding, in fact.
Example – Periwinkle was her favorite color.
General – The room was disheveled. Clothes were
dirty, dishes were everywhere. Chairs were
overturned and trash littered the floor.
Series – Would you like cake, peach pie, or a flan?
Mood – The day was dull and dark. Clouds hung low
and a feeling of melancholy was everywhere.
Experience – A pair of crows cawed raucously.
Expression – He was famished as a bear coming out
of hibernation.
What makes vocabulary instruction robust?
A robust approach to vocabulary instruction
involves directly explaining the meanings of
words along with thought-provoking, playful
and interactive follow-up.
A hurricane is a
tropical storm with
circulating winds
over 74 miles per
A hurricane is a very
dangerous storm
that usually begins
in warm ocean
waters and has
extremely strong
winds that move in
a circle around the
center of the storm.
The strong winds
and heavy rain from
the hurricane
damaged many
The weather report
warned of the
hurricane’s powerful
Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck,
Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan
Three Tiers of Vocabulary
Tier One
*Rarely require instructional attention
*Consist of basic words
*Examples: baby, clock, happy, walk,
jump, hop, slide, girl, boy, dog
Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck,
Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan
Three Tiers of Vocabulary
Tier Three
*Made of words whose frequency of use
is quite low and often limited to
specific domains.
*Best learned when a specific need arises
*Examples: isotope, lathe, peninsula, refinery
Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck,
Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan
Three Tiers of Vocabulary
Tier Two
*Contain high frequency words that are found
across a variety of domains
*Have a powerful impact on verbal functioning
*Must be words students have ways to express
the meaning of the word.
*Examples: coincidence, absurd, industrious,
Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck,
Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan
Three Tiers of Vocabulary
Selecting Tier Two Words
*Is it a useful word?
*Will the student encounter it again?
*Does the word relate to other words or
*Will it enhance further learning?
Lesson Plan for Tier Two Words
Read the following third/fourth grade paragraph.
Johnny Harrington was a kind master who treated
his servants fairly. He was also a successful
wool merchant and his business required that
he travel often. While he was gone, his
servants would tend to the fields and maintain
the upkeep of his mansion. They performed
their duties happily, for they felt fortunate to
have such a benevolent and trusting master.
(Kohnke, 2001)
Lesson Plan for Tier Two Words
Work with a partner to do this activity.
 Read the paragraph and identify 5 Tier
Two words. (Reminder: Tier Two words
are words that students should have an
understanding of their meaning.)
 Make a list of your 5 words and define
them using vocabulary that a student
would use.
For thousands of years, sinuous strips of
bituminous coal have lain beneath the
wooded hills and valleys of Somerset County,
Pennsylvania. Coal lured immigrants to the
area in the 1800’s, and helped forge their
reputation for hard work and hard living. For
generations, men have earned their
livelihoods—and all too often have lost their
lives—in the mines’ dark confines.
(Reader’s Digest, “Nine Alive! Inside the Amazing Mine Rescue”,
November 2002, pg. 164)
Word Knowledge Continuum
(Beck, et.al)
No knowledge
 General Sense
 Narrow Context-Bound knowledge
 Some knowledge but limited recall
 Rich, Decontextualized knowledge
Dictionary Definitions
What it means to really know a word.
Smoke – Random House
Verb – “to inhale and puff the smoke of a
cigarette, etc.”
a. He smoked a cigarette.
b. The psychologist smoked a pipe.
The hippie smoked a marijuana joint.
d. The ten-year-old smoked his first cigarette.
Word Knowledge Continuum
(Beck, et.al)
Know It
Think I
Know It
No Clue
Vocabulary Words
 card
 major
 minor
 distributional
 tatty
 devoid
The prime object of bidding is to locate an
eight-card or better major suit fit. On this deal,
each player held a four-card major, neither bid it
and both were right!
North correctly responded to his partner’s
opening bid in his five-card minor, not four-card
major. With a hand devoid of any distributional
feature and a tatty four-card suit, South bypassed
his major in favor of bidding one no trump. When
North raised, South’s 14 points and good
intermediates justified going on to game.
Excerpt taken from “Bridge” by Omar Sharif and Tannah Hirsch in the Charleston Gazette on August
2, 2007
A hair raising century by Australian opener Graeme
Wood on Friday set England back on its heels in the
third test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Unfortunately, living desperately cost the Australians
the match. Wood was caught out of his crease on the
first over after lunch. Within ten more overs, the
Australians were dismissed. Dangerous running
between creases dismissed four. Two were dismissed
when the English bowlers lifted the bails from the
batsmen’s wickets. English fieldsmen caught the three
remaining batsmen. One was caught as he tried for a
six. When the innings were complete, the Australians
had fallen short of the runs scored by the English.
(reprinted with written permission from Brookline Books, P.O. Box 1209 Brookline MA 02445)
Beck, Isabel L., Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan. 2002.
Bringing Words to Life. New York: The Guilford Press.
Beck, Isabel L., C.A. Perfetti, and Margaret McKeown. 1992.
The Effects of Long-term Vocabulary Instruction on
Lexical Access and Reading Comprehension. Journal of
Educational Psychology,
74(4), 506-521.
Graves, Michael F. and Wayne H. Slater. 1987. The
Development of Reading Vocabularies in Rural
Disadvantaged Students, Inner City Disadvantaged
Students, and Middle-class Suburban
Students. Paper
presented at the meeting of the American Educational
Research Association, Washington, D.C.
Hart, Betty, and Todd Risley. 1995. Meaningful Differences.
Baltimore: Brookes Co.
References, continued
Hayes,Donald P., and M. G. Ahrens. 1988. Vocabulary
Simplification for Children. Journal of Child
Language. 15: 395-410.
Joos, Martin. 1964. Language and the School Child.
Harvard Educational Review, 34, 203-210.
Miller, George A. 1978. Semantic Relations Among
Words. In Halle, Bresnan, & Miller, Eds.
LinguisticTtheory and Psychological Reality.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Nagy, William E., P.A. Herman, and R.C. Anderson.
1985. Learning Words fromContext. Reading
Research Quarterly, 19, 304-330.
National Reading Panel Report, 2000. Washington,
D.C.:National Institute for Literacy
Jane A. Massi

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