A solid vocabulary allows students to understand not only the meaning of words – but also sets the groundwork for comprehension of a text.
Knowledge of vocabulary also illuminates a socio economic divide. According to a study by Marzano & Kendell, “students from poverty often come to school with only half the vocabulary of middle-class students” (Sprenger, 2013, p. 131). Another study, found that 3rd grade students, who were high-performing, had the vocabulary equal or greater than 12th graders, who were in the lowest-performing group (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Therefore, teaching a robust vocabulary is not only a reading intervention — it is a practice that promotes educational equity.
So you believe in the mission, but with so many words in the English language, how do you pick which vocabulary words to teach and then how do you teach them effectively?
According to research, 85% of words used in standardized testing equate to Common Core Standards with words such as “analyze,” “cite,” “demonstrate,” “alliteration,” and “argument” (Sprenger, 2013).
If you want the full list of words, you can buy the book Teaching the critical vocabulary of the Common Core: 55 words that make or break student understanding.
Of course, accessing texts goes beyond standardized tests. To understand texts, readers need a vocabulary of 15,000 to 20,000 words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). The average 3rd grader knows 8,000 words, and therefore, there are 7,000 words left to teach or ideally 400 a year (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Out of this prodigious number, the book Bringing Words to Life provides a three tier framework for deciding which vocabulary to teach, since there is not enough time in the day to teach every single one of these words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002).
- Tier one words occur naturally in speech such as “cat” or “boat.”
- Tier two words occur across texts and may need to be explicitly taught such as “equivocate” or “complexity.”
- Tier three words are specific to a domain such as “isosceles” in Geometry or “photosynthesis” in Science.
Beck argues to prioritize teaching tier two words to students to fill the 7,000 word gap for the average 3rd grade student. However, working in special education, we have to keep in mind the needs of our individual students, who can be non-verbal, have a language disorder, have low working memory, or could be learning English. How much and what vocabulary we teach is contingent upon the specific needs of our students.
The strategies below can work with words of all complexities.
Frayer Model – The Frayer Model allows for a student to apply higher order thinking to vocabulary by words by creating a definition, characteristics, and non-examples. Students can exercise their creativity by drawing or finding another representation for the word.
Semantic Mapping – Semantic mapping allows students to also construct meanings of words using their own existing vocabulary. There is no one size fits all semantic map, so students should be encouraged to visually demonstrate their understanding of a vocabulary word through corresponding strands.
Word Wizard – In this program detailed in Bringing Words to Life, students earn points when bringing evidence of a “target word” that is used outside of the classroom in speech, print, TV, radio or social media. The teacher displays a “Word Wizard” board and provides points to students that share their outside examples of finding this specific word in outside text.
Teaching Latin and Greek root words- An understanding of root words is a huge help when encountering unfamiliar words. Some creative ways to teach root words include having students draw a tree with the “root word” as no other than the root and then draw other words as branches that use this root. Students can also have timed competitions for which team can think of the most words in 30 seconds that use that root. A root word can also be part of the Wizard Program, and students can gather all of the words they find using this particular affix.
How to Incorporate Vocabulary into the IEP Process
Assessment for Present Levels: Vocabulary assessment can be through a running record such as Fountas & Pinnell or Johns Reading Inventory. Informal assessment can also occur in a reading group or by evaluating the student’s writing or speech patterns.
Sample IEP Goal:
By annual review, with access to visuals and text to speech, student will be able to identify the meaning of an unfamiliar word at a (insert grade level) text by using strategies such as recognizing root words or word families or applying context clues with 80% accuracy on ⅘ trials as measured by teacher records.
- Word bank
- Access to Google Translate
- Access to Speech to Text
- Access to visuals when a new vocabulary word is being introduced
- Word wall of Greek/Latin roots
Ideas for Centers/Activities
Vocabulary Games– Playing games like Charades or Pictionary with vocabulary words will allow students the opportunity to act out words.
Crossword puzzles are a great way for students to apply their existing vocabulary to new concepts. I happen to be a fan of the NY Times mini crossword puzzle, which could be a great warm up activity for older students.
Word Ladders, which also help with phonological awareness, also test vocabulary.
Adding prefixes/suffixes – Word sorts with common prefixes or suffixes allows students to see how words change in meaning when a prefix or suffix is added or taken away. Students can also create words with popular affixes by putting cards into a pocket chart.
Where did I find this cool stuff?!
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
Sprenger, Marilee (2013). Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core : 55 Words That Make or Break Student Understanding. Alexandria: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Sprenger, M. (2013). Wiring the Brain for Reading: Brain-based Teaching Strategies for Teaching Literacy. San Francisco: Wiley & Sons.