Tag Archives: Vocabulary Instruction

Tiered Vocabulary Instruction – Properties of Matter

We are about half way through our focus on Matter in Science, and I am feeling pretty good about how things are going. I can tell that my students are beginning to understand the important concepts of the unit because they are using the key vocabulary in their speaking and writing, which means they “own” those words. As you know, if a student has a word for the concept, they likely also have the concept! In this blog post, I’m going to take you through some of the bends in the unit that have gotten my kiddos to this point.

What are the Three Tiers?

The three tiers are a way of thinking about the function of language as you choose vocabulary words to teach your students. Beck and McKeown outlined the tiers in their book “Bringing Words to Life”. For more in depth information on that, be sure to check out this blog post. One important thing to remember is that learning the vocabulary words involves learning to use the words, but not necessarily how to spell them. That is a different goal and different words should be chosen for spelling instruction.

Definition of each Tier

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.

Words to Teach

So, the bulk of vocabulary instruction should be Tier Two and Tier Three words, with the majority of time spent on Tier Two Words. The best time to teach Tier Three words is right before a student needs them. For example, if a word is going to be useful in a science lab or a non-fiction text, teach it that day, right before students need it. Word Cards are awesome for that! With our Matter unit, we spent two days on property of matter stations. Many of the target vocabulary words are Tier Three, so I put the Matter Word Cards on the whiteboard and introduced them and also put them at the property of matter stations. By the end of the two days, the kids were using the vocabulary pretty comfortably in their conversation and lab books.

Examples of Tier Two Words

You may be wondering which of the words in the pictures are Tier Two, and which ones are Tier Three. Because I was introducing lab stations, most of the words pictured are Tier Three. In the Matter unit, I am focusing on these Tier Two Words: solid, liquid, gas, states, property, flow, texture, matter, particle, dense, compress, conditions, material, substance, volume, mixture, contract, expand, capacity, sift, filter, and dilute. Interestingly, several of the Tier Two words fall into that category because they are used in cooking, making them more common, and increasing the likelihood that they will be found in a written text.

Tier Two Words: solid, liquid, gas, states, property, flow, texture, matter, particle, dense, , mineral, compress, conditions, material, substance, volume, mixture, contract, expand, capacity, sift, filter, dilute

Examples of Tier Three Words

In the Matter unit, I am focusing on these Tier Three Words: evaporate, buoyancy, condensation, melting point, boiling point, freezing point, plasma, atom, diffusion, concentration, molecule, insulate, conduct, reaction, dissolve, soluble, physical change, chemical change, solution, saturation, magnetism, precipitation. I’m sure you noticed that most of these words are specific to Science, and rarely found outside of a Science text. These words are essential for students to learn so that they can unlock key Science content. Direct vocabulary instruction is the way to teach these words.

Tier Three Words: evaporate, buoyancy, condensation, melting point, boiling point, freezing point, plasma, atom, diffusion, concentration, molecule, insulate, conduct, reaction, dissolve, soluble, physical change, chemical change, solution, saturation, magnetism, precipitation

Instructional Strategies

Now that we’ve defined the words to teach and categorized them, let’s dive into instructional strategies for helping students LEARN them! This part of the blog is going to focus on the ways I’ve been teaching Tier Two words because you’ve already seen how I weave Tier Three instruction into the Science labs, introducing the key vocabulary as the students need it.

First, I used some of the images from the Matter Word Cards to plant seeds of curiosity about the content and vocabulary with a Gallery Walk. This picture is one of the stations, involving several photos, some with text, and students responded with their Noticings and Wonderings. Some of the target vocabulary began to emerge, but not much, so this activity served an an informal assessment, helping me know that direct vocabulary instruction was going to be essential in helping students master the content of the unit.

Next, students read “Everything Matters”. This article contains the foundational knowledge about States of Matter that students should have learned in third grade. To make sure that the foundation is strong, we used a Close Reading Protocol. The directions for the Close Reading protocol are included in the resource, but I did add explicit vocabulary instruction after the first read. I asked students to find, and highlight, these words in the text: mass, volume, substance, molecules, material, conditions, exist, density, compressed, states. We then used the context to predict the meaning of each word. Finally, I showed the students the Word Cards with the definitions and images on them, and we compared the definition with their prediction. Students completed the Comic Strip Performance Task from the resource, which gave them a great opportunity to use some of the words authentically in their writing!

Another strategy I use frequently is making Flapbooks in their Science notebooks. Students fold a page of the notebook in half, and then cut to the fold, making a flap. On the front of the flap, they write the word. Then I ask them if they have heard it before. Next, I ask them to predict the part of speech. Finally, I show them the definition and picture on the Word Card. Students copy the definition inside the flap. Later, they will make their own drawing on the other side of the flap to show their understanding of the word.

Additional Practice Strategies

I hope this has given you some ideas to try in your own classroom. As students learn the words, it’s important that they continue to practice them in a variety of contexts. Games such as Vocabulary Dominoes or I Have, Who Has? are fun ways to practice the target vocabulary. Crossword Puzzles and Word Searches are also fun ways to engage students with target vocabulary. And whole class games like Hot Seat can be a fun way to focus students on vocabulary too (the directions for that are in the resource!). And of course, frequent opportunities to read the words, hear the words and use the words orally and in writing are key!

Resources You Will Love

Check out these resources to help your own students master Matter! Just click!

Be sure to check out these blog posts for more resources and insights to grow your Vocabulary instruction!

  1. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – The Three Tiers
  2. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – How Can We Teach Them All?
  3. Using Word Walls to Teach Tier Two Vocabulary
  4. Words, Words, Wonderful Words – What Does the CCSS Say?
  5. Wander Words

Using Word Walls for Explicit Vocabulary Instruction – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you probably know that I’ve spent a significant amount of my career teaching ELLs. You may also know that, even when I’m not teaching ELLs, explicit vocabulary instruction is always an important feature of my classroom. I try to spend just a few minutes a day on direct instruction of vocabulary. My goal is to teach 500 words a year – and even that is a small fraction of the words that I should be teaching. If you missed it, check out this post which summarizes the research on why direct vocabulary instruction is critical. This blog post will help you identify best practices for using Word Walls to improve vocabulary instruction in your classroom!

Getting Started

Word Walls are a key strategy in helping me meet that goal of 500 words a year. As you are setting up your Word Wall for the year, here are a few things I have learned over the years.

  1. The power of a Word Wall is in its interactivity. A pocket chart is the best way to ensure that. I’ve tried stapling words on the wall in the past, and I find that when I do, they just sit there. When I put them in a pocket chart, kids can grab the cards and use them, and so can I. So, to keep my Word Wall a living, interactive part of the classroom, I use a big pocket chart. For example, I recently taught a Science lab about Matter, and pulled these Word Wall cards out of the pocket chart as I introduced the lab. Then, students grabbed the Word Wall Cards and put them at the stations where they were testing for different properties of matter.
  2. Another benefit of the pocket chart is that I can add words that come up unexpectedly in class. I prepare Word Cards that I use intentionally, but I also seize the teachable moment and add words that we encounter in books, videos, conversation….
  3. Because I use a pocket chart, I can’t fit all of the words for the year at one time. So, students keep a personal Word Wall as part of their Writing Notebooks. Before I remove the Word Cards for a unit, I make sure the students have the words in their notebooks. I also store the previously learned Word Cards in an alphabetical accordion folder so that students can find them if they need them later on.
  4. Make sure you choose a spot that is easily visible and accessible. One year I put my Word Wall in the back of the classroom, and kids didn’t use it. Even though my students’ desks face all directions, there is something about the front of the classroom that communicates importance. Put your Word Wall in the front if you can.

What do you include on a Word Wall?

If you missed it, be sure to check out my blog post on Tier 2 words. That post explains the three tiers. What you need to know for today is that explicit instruction in Tier 2 words is a best practice for vocabulary instruction. My Word Wall is mostly Tier 2 words because they are the ones that my students need direct instruction with. I also include some Tier One words if I want my students to be sure to spell them correctly, and I add Tier 3 words when they come up.

If you don’t already have one, a COBUILD Dictionary is a great tool to explore. Besides all of the other things that a dictionary can do, COBUILD dictionaries tell us how frequently a word is used in written English. Very common words are Tier 1, and need little to no instruction. Very uncommon words are rare, and also need little to no instruction because, in all likelihood, the average reader will never encounter them. For example, abecedarian is a Tier 3 word. You may be an abecedarian when it comes to the COBUILD dictionary. But unless that word turns up as an important idea in a book or other context, I won’t spend direct instruction time on it in class.

As teachers, we want to put our energy into teaching our students the things they will likely need to know. For example, this link will take you to an online COBUILD dictionary where you will see that the entry for isthmus has two out of five dots colored. This tells you that isthmus is one of the 30,000 most frequently used words in English. So, some direct instruction is probably warranted.

Plateau, with three colored dots, is one of the 10,000 most frequently used words. And it is a word that students struggle to spell, so it is a perfect word to spend direct instruction time on, and should receive greater focus and deeper instruction.

This Word Wall set includes both of these words, plus 30 other landforms. Check it out today!

Adding Words to the Word Wall

There are many great ways to do this, so let your creative mind flow! But, if it’s late and your brain is tired, here are a few things I generally do as I introduce words.

For example, I use my Word Wall for my Landform vocabulary every year. If you need Landform Word Cards, check out this set on TPT. Each card has a photo of a landform in the US, so I double my impact by teaching important Science and Social Studies content!

This resource includes 32 terms. At the beginning of the unit, I choose the Tier 1 words that my students likely already know, and quickly add them to the Word Wall. It should take about 10 minutes of class time. The goal is to make students aware that the words are there, that they should know them, and that they are responsible for spelling them correctly, now and forever. I play a game I call Categories to introduce these words. It sounds like this.

Teacher: Class, today we are going to play Categories. I have 10 words. Our category is landforms. The first definition is “a piece of land that rises higher than everything around it.”

Student: Mountain?

Teacher: Good guess. This landform is smaller than a mountain.

Student: Hill?

Teacher: Right!

And then I place the Word Card under the document camera to show the students the word, definition and photo. Then it goes into the pocket chart and we move on to the next word. In this way I review 10 words that most of my students already know and I create a place in their brain to hold more words that fit the category of landforms.

The next day, I introduce a Mystery Word that fits in in our category. Mystery Words are always Tier 2 words, and I will spend the majority of my direct instruction time on these words. I choose a word that the students should encounter in reading or other context that day, and I remind them that it fits the category of landform. In the morning, I write the first letter on the board, and then blank lines for each letter (like the game of hangman). As the day progresses, I add a letter here and there until the students guess the word. Often, they guess the word when they encounter it in the text. Then, we look at the Word Card and add it to our Word Wall.

Finally, if there are Tier Three words that I want the students to learn, I present them in a quick, direct instruction. I simply tell the kids the word and the definition, and then use it in a sentence. Then, I challenge my students to work together to come up with a sentence of their own. Finally, we add the word to the Word Wall.

That’s a quick overview of how I use Word Walls in my classroom. Of course, the power is in the revisiting. More on that in future posts.

In the meantime, if it’s helpful, grab some of my Word Wall sets on TPT, or make your own. Here’s to a year filled with Words, Words, Wonderful Words!

Twelve Fantastic Picture Books for Teaching Black History – Part 1

With so many amazing picture books out there, it was hard to narrow it down to a manageable list! These are the first six books of the 12 that my students and I love every year. Check back in a few days for the rest of the list! This list is roughly in chronological order,

Read more

Words, Words, Wonderful Words! The Three-Tiers

In 1987, Beck and colleagues introduced the idea of a three-tier system to guide teachers as they chose words to explicitly teach. Their purpose was to help teachers understand which words should receive the most explicit instruction. As they built the tiered system, they focused on the function of words in language. Basals and reading programs often have different goals when choosing words for explicit instruction. It’s important to note that Beck and McKeown’s work focuses on the function and meaning of the words, not the spelling or reading difficulty. As a teacher, you might choose to intentionally pre-teach a difficult word or a spelling pattern. That goal differs from the goals of vocabulary instruction, which include building familiarity with words and capacity to use a word in speaking and writing.

Tier One

According to “Bringing Words to Life“, Tier One words are “typically found in oral language”. These are words like dog, warm, run, talk, tired, party, look and swim. Because these are common in everyday speech, children are exposed to these words in a variety of contexts and with great frequency. This familiarity means that for a native speaker, these words rarely need to be taught. Keep in mind that we are focusing on students’ ability to use these words in their speaking and writing. You may want to explicitly teach how to spell these words, but that is a separate focus from building the capacity to use a word.

Tier Two

The second tier is where teachers should spend the majority of their instructional time. In this tier we find words that cross many domains and are used by mature language users. In my classroom we call these “scholarly words”. Tier Two words include words like circumstances, contradict, precede, auspicious, fervent and retrospect. One hallmark of Tier Two words is that they are seldom used in conversation, but are frequently found in written text. That means that students will seldom encounter these words in daily life. However, knowledge of these words can enhance a student’s ability to read grade level texts and also to express themselves exactly and precisely in their written work. Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Mark Twain

You are probably wondering how many Tier Two words there are and which ones to focus on. Good question! Beck and McKeown helpfully analyze a study from Nagy and Anderson (1984) that focused on words in printed school English for third through ninth graders. They found that:

  • Good readers in this age range typically read about one million words per year.
  • There are about 88,500 word families in printed school English. A word family is a group of related words, for example introduce, introduced, introduction and reintroduce.
  • About half of these word families are extremely rare, meaning that even a voracious reader may encounter them only once in their lifetime.
  • About 15,000 word families would likely be encountered at least once every 10 years. Those are the words that Beck and McKeown have designated as Tier One and Tier Two words.
  • Approximately 8,000 of those word families fall in Tier One, so students will likely learn those words through repeated exposure and multiple contexts without explicit instruction.

So, that leaves us with about 7,000 word families to teach. If we start in kindergarten with a goal of teaching those words by ninth grade, that averages out to about 700 words. No problem! Right?

Well, not exactly. I’ve been at this for a long time, and in my best years I am able to get in about 500 words that I’ve taught explicitly. And if I’m perfectly honest, just because I’ve taught them explicitly, it doesn’t meant that my students have learned them. I would love to think differently, but that just isn’t realistic. Beck and McKeown suggest that if just 400 words are taught explicitly each year, that would have a significant affect on students’ ability to comprehend text at their grade level. In fact, they have research to prove that it does! That is a bit easier, but still a lofty goal! We’ll cover strategies to meet that goal in future blog posts.

Tier Three

Tier Three words are domain specific or extremely rare. These are the words that students need to understand science, social studies and math concepts. Think of words like quotient, epidermis and filibuster. These words generally don’t cross domains, so Beck and McKeown suggest teaching them in context. When a student encounters a Tier Three word, that is moment to teach it. The other type of Tier Three word is a very rare word, such as abecedarian. Quite possibly you’ve never encountered that word, and it’s likely your students won’t either. (Interestingly, an abecedarain is a novice learner.) Because these words don’t have great utility in the majority of texts, teachers should not spend a significant amount of instructional time on them. In my experience, that’s where we spend the majority of our vocabulary instruction time – just the reverse of what we should be doing!

So, how to reverse that trend and still find time to eat dinner with your family? My blog post, “Words, Words Wonderful Words! – Strategies to engage your students” will give you some of my tried and true ideas. And, Bringing Words to Life has lots more great ideas. Get the book! It’s really worth it!

Would You Rather?

A photo of a classroom poster

For years, my kids and I have played the game “Would You Rather”? Would you rather eat a cockroach or swim with sharks? Would you rather climb Mt. Everest or live on the moon? We have whiled away many a car ride exploring the wacky side of life.

And then one day I thought, I should do this at school. To practice vocabulary terms!

We were working on Powers of Ten prefixes at the time, so I sat down to see if I could create cards with challenges related to that unit. I don’t know who had more fun – me while I was creating the cards or the kids while they were reading them!

I’ve used Would You Rather cards several different ways, but my hands down favorite is a Chalk Talk. All you need is some butcher paper and one copy of each of the Would you Rather cards. Cut out the cards and tape one to the top of a piece of butcher paper. Then, spread the eight pieces of butcher paper around the room – hang them on walls, lay them on tables, whatever you can do to create enough space for 3-4 students to crowd around.

Each student will need a marker. I tell them that they’ll have about 15 minutes to rotate from poster to poster. At each poster, they are free to write a response to the Would You Rather challenge OR they can respond to what another student wrote OR they can do both. I ask them to make sure that there are no more than 4 students at a poster at one time. And I tell them that they must be SILENT! The power of this game is that they can’t talk. It forces them to use the target vocabulary in writing, and to justify the thinking. That forces them to think about the meaning of the word. The kids love it, and they will often go back to a poster several times, adding to their original thinking and reading the responses that other students have written. And every time they do, they are practicing that target vocabulary again!

After about 15 minutes, I give them a two-minute warning so that they have time for one last response or revisit. Then, I have them sit down, and I go to each poster, reading a few of the responses from each. That gives them an opportunity to respond verbally, and we have a discussion for about 15 more minutes. By the end of that time, I guarantee they are using the vocabulary more confidently than at the beginning of the activity.

Please download my free, Would You Rather cards, and give it a try! Let me know how it goes.

Words, Words, Wonderful Words – How can we teach them all?

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!

Words, Words, Wonderful Words! What does the CCSS say?

As promised, I’m going to dive into the research and resources that I have found to be most useful in building a robust vocabulary for students. We’re going to start with the Common Core State Standards.

What? The standards are a resource? You bet! If you haven’t spent time with the Appendices, I totally recommend you do. They give a great overview of key research and important ideas in each subject, and can really point you in the right direction. Achieve the Core is a great resource for unlocking the standards and what they really expect.

Just in case you don’t have time to read what the ELA Appendix says about Vocabulary, here is a brief summary (but you really should pour a cup of coffee and read it sometime!)

The stance of the standards towards vocabulary is that “the importance of students acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary cannot be overstated.” The appendix references several researchers, including Beck, McKeown and Kucan who wrote the essential book on vocabulary instruction, Bringing Words to Life, and have been instrumental in unlocking effective and engaging vocabulary instruction for teachers for many years. According to their work, and quoted in the Appendix, “Key to students’ vocabulary development is building rich and flexible word knowledge. Students need plentiful opportunities to use and respond to the words they learn through playful informal talk, discussion, reading or being read to and responding to what is read.”

The appendix briefly traces the development of language, beginning with oral language. According to the document, initially students acquire vocabulary through oral conversation that is rich in context. However, by grade 4 or 5, students are no longer learning vocabulary through conversation because they have mastered the majority of words that come up in conversation, even in academic conversation.

The appendix asserts that written language contains a far greater array of words, however, it lacks interactivity and context that aids students in acquiring language. Therefore, inherent in the standards is the idea that purposeful, ongoing instruction in vocabulary is necessary. Research shows that students need to grasp about 95% of the words that they read to comprehend a text, yet only 5-15% of new words are retained the first time a student reads them. Thus, the focus on playful talk and discussion to support reading.

Finally, the appendix references Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s work in categorizing words into three tiers. These three tiers help teachers know which words to prioritize in vocabulary instruction. For more on that topic, see my post Words, Words, Wonderful Words – The Three Tiers!

The College and Career Readiness Standards, from which all of our K-12 standards are derived, have 4 standards devoted to language acquisition in the Language portion of the document (CCRR.L.3, CCRR.L.4, CCRR.L.5. and CCRR.L.6), one standard in the Reading portion of the standards (CCRR.R.4). As you can see, the heavy emphasis on vocabulary instruction in the standards really cannot be overstated. We’ll keep exploring this topic together in future posts and unlock how to make that a reality in your classroom!

Happy teaching!