Selecting Words for Vocabulary Instruction

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  • 0:00 Why Teach Vocabulary?
  • 0:58 Choosing Quality Vocab Words
  • 2:18 Tier-Two Vocabulary
  • 3:57 Choosing Tier-Three Words
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

When students understand and are fluent with vocabulary they have a better understanding of what they read. How can teachers focus their instruction? This lesson will show how to create vocabulary lists to enhance subject knowledge.

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.

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