Well, the simple answer to that question is, we can’t. But what we can do is teach students the important words that they must know and teach them how to teach themselves all the other amazing words that they will encounter as they become literate speakers, readers and writers.
The best resource I’ve ever encountered for robust vocabulary instruction is Bringing Words to Life by Beck and McKeown. I read the first edition years ago when I was teaching at a school with a significant number of ELLs, and read the second edition last summer. Even if you’ve read the first edition, I recommend picking up the second. Both are a quick, fun read, and there is enough new material in the second edition to make it worth perusing.
So, why is this the best thing I’ve ever read about vocabulary acquisition? Well, because Beck and McKeown do a beautiful job of giving you a compelling case for why direct instruction in vocabulary is necessary in the first chapter and the second chapter helps you know which words to spend your time on. They categorize words into three Tiers, and suggest focusing instruction on the words in Tier Two, which they describe as “words (that) are likely to appear frequently in a wide variety of texts and in the written and oral language of mature language users”. For more on the three tiers, be sure to check out my post on the subject! The rest of the book talks about the practicalities of instruction – and hits things that both your students and your administrators will love! To get a flavor of their work, check out this pdf of a chapter from another of their books, Vocabulary Instruction, published in 2004.
My favorite chapter is on differentiation – something that I’m always working to do better. Their approach is directly embedded in Response to Intervention, or RTI and also suits my teaching style because the instructional strategies focus on giving students time to talk about the words in different contexts, to build nuanced understanding of word meanings and to give students opportunities to apply the words.
One strategy that I love for building background knowledge and vocabulary came from Robert Marzano’s book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools. He suggests wide reading on a topic because it will build both background knowledge and vocabulary. I’ve found that it can be difficult to find text sets that build naturally upon one another without being too repetitive or too boring. With careful vetting, it can be done. Since I enjoy writing, I’ve started writing text sets to build knowledge for my students. This link will take you to my TPT store where you can check out text sets covering Core Content like Democracy, and also things that are interesting to kids like Earthquakes and The Vikings. I purposefully structure the text set to build understanding of 12 – 15 key vocabulary terms using strategies borrowed largely from Beck and McKeown’s book, and I tie the terms together and build content knowledge with four texts per topic. Hopefully, the lesson plans will make this easy for you and fun for your students!
Building academic vocabulary is key for reading success, which in turn is key for all academic success. I try to teach my students about 500 words a year, but more importantly, I try to teach them how to teach themselves so the word learning continues. Leave a comment to let me know how you teach vocabulary. What works for you? What doesn’t work? I’d love to hear from you!