Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Why Teach Vocabulary?

Ms. Ryan is preparing a read aloud of Roald Dahl’s book Matilda. She knows she’ll have to teach many vocabulary terms, or specific words and their definitions, so children can focus on the skills she’s teaching and understand key concepts. While the story is simple and entertaining, there are many words her students won’t know or be familiar with, such as ‘headmistress,’ ‘eye socket,’ and ‘elate.’ Which words are best to teach?

Teachers should always be intentional when choosing vocabulary words. There should be a specific purpose for student learning. One reason to learn new vocabulary is to become familiar with unknown words. Another is to choose words that are specific to the topic, such as ‘matron,’ for Matilda. Teachers should also choose words that are useful, or that a student will see after the topic or unit is over. Let’s take a look at some methods Ms. Ryan uses to select terms.

Choosing Quality Vocab Words

Teachers choose vocabulary words to enhance speaking, reading, and writing, and help develop the students’ overall knowledge of a subject. How does this happen? Educators often think of vocabulary words in tiers, or how the vocabulary word fits into a student’s understanding.

  • Tier-one words are those used and understood by the student without instruction, such as shoe, frown, ball, and book.
  • Tier-two words are used often with higher level language and found in various places, like at school, home, and in the community. These words, such as ‘cathedral,’ ‘boundless,’ and ‘precocious,’ are shown to be connected with student success. In other words, students who know, understand, and use tier-two words are more successful in school. Teachers should spend most vocabulary time instructing at this level.
  • Tier-three words are those with lower frequency we see in content areas or specific places; words like ‘molecule’ or ‘denominator.’ Because tier three words aren’t typically seen and used in other areas of school or life, instruction time should be limited to the content area.

As you can see, Ms. Ryan will focus her instruction on tier-two words for most of her vocabulary instruction. We know she doesn’t spend any instructional time on tier-one words and teaches tier-three words in math, science, and social studies.

Tier-Two Vocabulary

Ms. Ryan looks more closely at Matilda and notices there are many words her students won’t understand that would fit into the classification of tier two. She also knows she can’t teach a long list of vocabulary words and expect her students to have success. The goal is for her students to learn new words to become better readers and writers and increase their working vocabulary and language skills. How can she narrow down the field of tier two words? Here are some things she keeps in mind:

1. Choose words students will be able to connect to another word.

For example, a word such as ‘entire’ could be expressed as ‘all.’ Most students know what ‘all’ means. However, a word such as ‘prostrate,’ which means to lay across the ground at full length, may be difficult for students to understand as they don’t readily have a way to express that thought in a tier one word.

2. Choose words that will help students understand the text.

Some unfamiliar words will stop a student’s understanding in its tracks while others can be easily inferred. For example, in the sentence ”The matron spilled the water, which gushed over the desks,” students can infer the word ‘gush’ means to move quickly. However, they have no context to understand who or what a ‘matron’ is.

3. Choose words that drive the story and are seen repeatedly.

For the book Matilda, students will need to know and understand what a headmistress is to get the gist of the kind of school Matilda attends. This vocabulary word is necessary to comprehend the basic plot.

Ms. Ryan will choose words that are tier two, then narrow the pool by selecting words that students will most likely be able to express, will help with comprehension of the text, and that are seen often in the story.

Choosing Tier-Three Words

Tier-three words are also known as academic vocabulary, words seen almost exclusively in the content area they are found. In math class, Ms. Ryan is teaching fractions. She knows students need to have a working knowledge of the words ‘numerator’ and ‘denominator,’ so she will put these on her list of math vocabulary. Students will also need to know ‘part’ and ‘whole,’ but those are tier one words, so she will spend some time making sure all students have the same understanding of them but not put them on her list.

Choosing tier-three words is a process of identifying terms students will need to understand and use frequently. Ms. Ryan knows her students have vocabulary words from many sources (science, social studies, math, and language arts) so she keeps her lists to a manageable number. Younger students can only handle a few words at a time, while older students are more able to juggle several new concepts at once.

Lesson Summary

Choosing which words to teach students is a tricky business. There are many words students need to know for any given topic or subject and a teacher, like Ms. Ryan, is tasked with selecting a good list for instruction. Because we know students with a high and rich vocabulary perform better in school, we understand the importance of focusing instructional time on teaching solid vocabulary words.

The first step when choosing words is to identify which tier they belong to. Teachers don’t need to teach tier-one words, or those students know and use often. Tier-two words, those unknown to students but used in a wide variety of places, are the best words to focus on. When selecting tier-two words for a unit, theme, or topic, Ms. Ryan focuses on words students can express in another way, are important to the story, and are seen and used often. When selecting tier-three words, or those only found in content areas, she chooses a few that are central to understanding the material she’s covering. She knows to keep the lists reasonable and think of her students’ abilities as she creates them.

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