Why Teach Vocabulary?
Let’s face it. Instructional time is precious. There is never enough time to teach the content students didn’t quite master last year, to teach the skills and standards they need to master this year, and to maybe throw in a little something, just for fun. So, why “waste” time intentionally teaching vocabulary?
This post will….
- Explain the importance of teaching vocabulary explicitly
- Help you understand which words to teach
- Give practical tips for teaching vocabulary in any content
Why is teaching vocabulary important?
First, let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing. There are actually four different ways a student can master a given vocabulary term: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Listening and speaking are both oral language, and reading and writing are both written language. Children begin to develop oral language skills long before they come to school, but for most students, written language skills begin to develop around the time they enter school. Generally speaking, a student’s largest vocabulary is listening. Students can understand words before they can use them in their own speaking, but the two are connected. In the same way, most students have a larger reading vocabulary than written vocabulary, but the two support each other. More on that in later posts.
Later we’ll get into specific strategies for improving language skills in the four areas. For now, the reasons for teaching vocabulary explicitly mostly overlap.
- Knowing the correct word helps students express themselves clearly and be understood – in both speaking and writing. Have you ever witnessed a two-year old’s temper tantrum? Likely, they are expressing their frustration in the only way they know how. They have an idea in their head but they don’t have the word. Then, an adult caregiver comes along and asks, “Would you like me to read this book to you?” The two-year-old calms down, and repeats, “Read.” Now they have the word they need and the frustration passes. Older students may not have temper tantrums, but they still feel frustration when they can’t make themselves understood. Vocabulary instruction helps them have the words to express their ideas and knowledge. Vocabulary = Being Understood
- The reverse is also true. When we teach complex concepts (like equivalent fractions), explicit teaching of the term leads to great understanding of the concept. When students understand that equivalent is similar to, but different from, equal, they begin to grasp the nuances of equivalent fractions. Vocabulary – Greater Understanding
- Explicit vocabulary instruction increases reading comprehension. That has been well documented in study after study. And it makes common sense. Obviously, students cannot comprehend a text if they do not know the meaning of key words. It has also been well documented that students LEARN new vocabulary through consistent reading. Wide reading = Higher Vocabulary, and Higher Vocabulary = Wide Reading.
What to teach?
So, the Oxford English Dictionary defines about 600,000 words. But, that’s not all of the words in English. Some estimates say there are over a million words in English, and it’s ever growing. Do you remember a time you didn’t know the word meme? I do. It was invented after I was born, but I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was out of the mouth of my 14 year old son – probably in 2020. English is a living language – one of the beautiful things about it.
This causes a problem for teachers. Even if we stick with the 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and forget all the new words being created, we could never hope to teach them all. The good news is, we don’t have to. In 2002, Beck, Kucan and McKeown published Bringing Words to Life. In the book, they explained that teachers should focus on teaching Tier Two words. Check out these blog posts for more in depth information on Tier Two words.
- Words, Words, Wonderful Words – The Three Tiers
- Words, Words, Wonderful Words – How Can We Teach Them All?
- Using Word Walls to Teach Tier Two Vocabulary
- Words, Words, Wonderful Words – What Does the CCSS Say?
- Wander Words
- Tiered Vocabulary Instruction – Properties of Matter
For now, here is a quick overview.
Tier One words are commonly found in oral language. They are typical words that most native speakers learn to understand easily. Because they are learned through spoken language, they might make great spelling words, but they should not be targets for vocabulary instruction for native speakers.
Tier Two words are generally not used in spoken language, but they are encountered in written language, so they are key for students to learn. These are the words that unlock comprehension, advance reading skills, and bring writing to life. Many content words fall into this category. Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.
Tier Three words are only used in a specific domain, and don’t cross into other content areas. They also might be very rare words. These are the words that students need to unlock key concepts in science and social studies, and should be explicitly taught as needed.
There are about 7,000 Tier Two word families. If you teach a word from each word family, and help students make connections to the other words in the word family, the whole process becomes more manageable. 7,000 divided by 13 years of schooling is 538.46 word families a year. Still lofty, but doable.
From Theory to Practice
Now we’ve come full circle. You understand why explicit vocabulary instruction is important, but I’m sure you’re asking yourself the question we started with. Where do I find the time?
The answer is simple. Consistent, easy routines that you weave throughout your day, in multiple content areas, will help you explicitly teach the vocabulary your students need to know. This FREE e-book gives you details on each routine.
Grab the book and then implement these strategies in your classroom today!
To increase oral language, use these routines:
- Capture the Word
- Fist of Five
- Examples and Non-Examples
- Hot Seat
To increase written language, use these routines:
- Interactive Notebooks
- Capture the Word
- Word Wonder
- Word Detective
These simple routines take little to no prep, and can be implemented in math class, science class, social studies…. Grab the FREE e-book today and give it a try!