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Vocabulary Instruction: Guidelines for Word Selection

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Vocabulary knowledge is closely tied to a reader's comprehension. Not only do readers need to know word meanings, but they must also have background knowledge to support their vocabulary. Vocabulary is also closely tied to achievement. Many studies have shown that the vocabularies of high performing children exceed those of their same-age peers. Some researchers assert that children need to learn about 700 words per year to be successful. Some words are learned indirectly through conversations and reading, but some must be directly taught. What words should be taught? Should we think about their utility in day-to-day life? Should we consider their usefulness for talking or writing or both? This section of the Vocabulary Guide will discuss basic principles of selecting words for direct vocabulary instruction. These principles are described in greater depth in Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan and Word Power: What Every Educator Needs to Know About Teaching Vocabulary by Stahl and Kapinus.

Identifying Words

The saying "Either you know it or you don't" does not apply to vocabulary. There are words that we know well, words that we somewhat know, and words that we do not know at all. For example, we probably all know the meaning of protest. We are probably familiar enough with the word actuary to use it in a sentence but could not provide a complete definition. Adjuvant is a word that we might not know. Put Reading First uses the terms established (e.g., protest), acquainted (e.g., actuary), and unknown (e.g., adjuvant). Ultimately, we want our students to be able to: (a) define a word including multiple meanings, (b) select and recognize appropriate situations in which to use the word, (c) apply it correctly to all situations and recognize inappropriate use, and (d) use the word in their own thinking and discourse.

We can think about words in another way. In Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan talk about words in "tiers" of utility. Tier One consists of words that are used frequently and do not require instructional time (e.g., clock, happy, school). These are words that are most often established in vocabularies of our students. Tier Two contains words that are used frequently with mature language users and can be found in various contexts (e.g., coincidence, require, fortunate). A vocabulary rich in Tier Two words has a significant influence on verbal functioning and, thus, academic life. Instruction in words at this tier is therefore valuable to students. Language Arts teachers and English teachers should focus their instructional time here. Tier Three is made up of words that have a low frequency of use and are limited to certain domains. For example, isotope is a word specific to chemistry and would be needed for dealing with that discipline. Stahl and Kapinus call these words "extremely low frequency words" that have specific applications and are, therefore, most efficiently dealt with by content area teachers.

So, how do you identify Tier Two words?

Words can be drawn from books selected for read alouds and teacher-guided reading groups. Generally, vocabulary instruction for emergent and beginning readers will take place during read alouds, and much of the vocabulary instruction for instructional readers will take place during teacher-guided reading groups. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan suggest thinking about whether your students already have ways to express the concepts represented by the words. For example, might your students already have a word for fortunate? Lucky may be a word that they may use instead of fortunate. If this were the case, then a new word (in this case fortunate) would provide your students with a more mature or precise way of referring to an idea with which they are already familiar. Again, these are words for which students have a grasp of the general concept but would benefit from instruction that provides specificity of the concept.

Consider this paragraph from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (page 88):

cover"Long before becoming a judge, Josie-Jo Ford had decided to stop smiling. Smiling without good reason was demeaning. A serious face put the smiler on the defensive, a rare smile put a nervous witness at ease. She now bestowed one of her rare smiles on the dress-maker. 'I'm so glad we have this chance to become acquainted, Mrs. Baumbach. I had so little time to chat with my guests last night.'"

Possible Tier Two Words Ways Students Would Express the Words
demeaning embarrassing
defensive protective
bestowed give
rare unusual
acquainted get to know
chat talk

* Word of Caution: Selection of Tier Two words is not black or white. The words you pick may not be the words that I would pick; however, there will be a great deal of general overlap between our two selections. So, do not get bogged down in the process.

Which words do I teach after I've identified Tier Two words?

Once Tier Two words have been identified, you must then consider which words will be the most beneficial in helping students understand the passage. You must also consider how frequently the words appear across a variety of subjects and the word's range of usage. For example, murmur and impressive may be identified as Tier Two words in a story. Impressive may be chosen for instruction rather than murmur simply because it has a wider range of possible uses and would appear more frequently across different domains.

Do I only address vocabulary in read alouds with my beginning readers? True, texts written for beginning readers will have simple wordsthose that would most likely appear on a Tier One list. However, vocabulary instruction does not have to involve only words found in the story. It could also involve words that are conceptually critical to the text. Consider the preprimer book Dishy Washy (written by Joy Cowley). In this story, Mr. Wishy-Washy (Mrs. Wishy-Washy's husband) is washing dishes and accidentally washes the cat. Consequently, Mr. Wishy-Washy begins to pay more attention to what he is washing. Words that might be introduced due to their conceptual merit might be cautious, consequence, or solution. For example, you would point out the your students that Mr. Wishy-Washy "watches what he washes." Then you would say that another way to say that you watch what you are doing is to say that he is cautious. Cautious means "doing something with care --- watching what you are doing." Following the definition and the contextual connection, you would also talk about times that your students are cautious.

Can I choose words that are conceptually critical to the story even if they are not in the story?

Absolutely. We just talked about choosing words for their conceptual merit when using beginning level texts; however, words can be chosen for their conceptual merit at any time. For example, if you are reading Money Troubles by Bill Cosby, you might introduce generous or charitable, because Little Bill gives to a food drive. In Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan suggest that you should "think in terms of words that coordinate with, expand, or play off of words, situations, or characters."

How do I know if particular words are grade appropriate?

pixIf a word is on a grade level vocabulary list, it does not mean that students in other grades cannot learn the word. It simply means that, according to a frequency index, that most students do not know the word until that particular grade level. You should consider whether or not you can explain the word in familiar terms for your students. If you cannot do that, then the word may be too difficult. As noted above, you should also consider how frequently the word appears across a variety of subjects and the range of its use.

How many words should I teach at one time?

There is not a definitive answer to this question. It depends on the passage at hand, the needs of the students in your classroom, the other academic demands your students may be facing at the same time, etc. Another consideration is whether or not the words are necessary for comprehension or have a wide range of possible uses. There is no need to try to include more words if only a couple fit these criteria.

Here are some guiding questions when selecting words for vocabulary instruction:

  • How useful is the word?
  • Is the word likely to be found in the texts your students read?
  • Is the word useful for your students when they are talking or writing?
  • How does the word conceptually relate to other ideas your students know or are learning about?
  • Is the word necessary for understanding a passage?
  • Can you explain the word in terms that are familiar to your students?

Pictorial Case Study for Vocabulary Development

Please feel free to download and use any of the activities and information that we have provided. You may contact the Reading First office at the University of Virginia if you have any questions.

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