Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Building Your Students' Vocabulary {Part 2 in a Series}



To be completely transparent, for more than half of my career, I was torn about exactly how to attack vocabulary- about providing instruction that would actually have an impact past my therapy room. I confess... I used many of the questionable methods that I discussed in Part 1 of this series. I often taught words in the moment; I taught strategies for context clues and words related to a book or theme. I felt confident about teaching Tier 1 words with my little ones, but academic vocabulary was a challenge for both me and my students.  

The fact of the matter was that even though I was in my students' classrooms twice a week, I knew it wasn't enough to make a substantial difference on something as big and all encompassing as vocabulary.  One thing I knew for sure was this...


This was especially true with regard to my 4th and 5th graders who were struggling with the rigor of the curriculum. I know, I know... our schedules shouldn't dictate services, but haven't we all been there? We can only cram so much into a work week.  

I became determined- bordering on obsessed - with the fact that I had to increase their vocabulary and I knew enough to know that they needed to use their new words daily. Their vocabulary deficits were making every single passage they had to read (and comprehend) seem like an impossible feat. Their vocabulary, or lack thereof, and subsequent inability to comprehend sooooo many words in text, was becoming their downfall in every.  single.  subject.   

How would I improve their vocabularies (and thus their background knowledge and comprehension skills) if I wasn't with them to make it happen? Besides, they had plenty of IEP goals that had nothing to do with vocabulary.  

I decided to post a Word of the Week outside of my therapy room door. My room was situated such that every student passed it several times a day- to go to the cafeteria, to go to P.E., to go to and from the busses and so on. 

I posted the word of the week with the definition and a funny sentence related to our school (that would make it stick in their memory for sure!).  It was soon clear that no one read my little word of the week. It was a massive failure; it was equivalent to expecting students to learn words by osmosis. I went back to the proverbial drawing board. 

I knew the key was to get kids using the word of the week - not just reading it or defining it. That was a tall order since, although I think words are fascinating and learning new words is exciting, my students certainly did not. For them, learning a new word... reading...anything language related....was about as exciting to them as watching grass grow. For some it was downright torture. Many were victims of the word poverty I described in Part 1. 

I moved my word of the week into my inclusion classes.  I sold my ELA co-teachers on it - mostly by promising them that I would do all the work and all they had to do was play along.  For a year I implemented word of the week in two 4th grade ELA classes. On Mondays, I introduced our new word to the classes; I choose them from the novels we were reading (admittedly a complete shot in the dark).  I knew I wanted it to be a challenging word but one that they could actually use at school. I posted the word in the classroom, and we discussed the word ad nauseam

Here is one of our words of the week- flexible.  I posted just the word with the part of speech and a very kid-friendly definition. 

We said it.
We guessed what it meant. 
We told what we knew about that word. 
We discussed the meaning. 
We made sentences with it. 
We acted it out. 
When possible, we looked at it, listened to it, touched it, smelled it and/or tasted it. 
We talked about mental flexibility and physical flexibility

We looked at bunches of pictures that I prepared ahead of time- some that were related to "flexible" as well as some non-examples.  

I put them in small groups and had them decide which pictures would be glued to the word of the week- based on whether or not they thought it represented "flexible." 

That particular week I was an overachiever and had cooked frozen French fries the night before. Half of the fries were cooked until hard and crispy while the others were slightly undercooked (soggy fries- my personal favorite). Each student got a fry and got to touch, smell and even taste it if they wished. 
They decided if it was flexible (able to bend easily without breaking) or not. 


I invited students to demonstrate to the class how flexible they were. 
The teacher and I demonstrated how inflexible we were. 
Finally the class decided who was the most flexible. 

We really chewed on the word. 

At the end of the lesson, we ended up with this...

flexible.jpg

and this was how they would record who used the word...

 Feel free to download this document HERE.  

I explained that the goal was to use it as much as possible (either in discussion or writing) all week long. When they did, they got to write their name on this designated sheet of paper (the teacher had to approve it first). Believe me, most weeks they used it incorrectly much more than they used it correctly. 

At the end of the week, the student whose name was written the most times won a prize from my prize box. I know that many educators don't believe in rewards like this, but I do. I believe in the power of positive reinforcement. Like I mentioned before, trying to use a new word would not be easy nor tempting to my students; they needed a little incentive. I quickly saw that my students with language deficits were not the ones getting their names on the sheet (no surprise there).  To up the ante, I took them aside and asked each child what he or she would like to see in my prize box.  Hot Fries and Dr. Pepper were the most requested so I made a point to have those ready just in case they won the competition. It worked, and more of my students started to win. In fact, they became obsessed with winning! They knew there was good stuff in my stash! If this sounds familiar it's because this later evolved into Idiom of the Week which used the same premise and I blogged about it HERE. 

Remember, I introduced flexible on Monday. The challenge that week was to use it (verbally or in writing) as many times as possible.  Again, I wouldn't be in class again for a few days so it was up to the teacher to decide when students "got credit" for correct use.  

I would go back to class on Thursday to focus on novel study or ELA skill and then pop on on Friday to give the winner their prize. 

Sometimes I chose multiple meaning words; tart is one I remember vividly. It was the perfect opportunity for a multi-sensory learning experience. 

Looking back, I think the kids could have handled more than one word of the week, but I'm not sure the teachers could have. It did take some policing to monitor who was writing their name down and to keep the cheaters at bay.  All I knew was that I was doing this on a wing and a prayer and it WAS getting kids to use new words and use them often. They were using the words even when I wasn't there to pester and prod them! 

My vocabulary instruction wasn't perfect, but come to find out, it wasn't half bad because it was very much in line with Robert Marzano (teacher/genius) and his methods for teaching new words. We all learned about Marzano in college, but it wasn't until many years after grad school that I went back to look at his teachings and this method in particular...

His 6 steps make up a research based strategy for teaching vocabulary (Marzano, 2004). It involves the following: 
1.  Provide a description, explanation or example of the new term. 
2.  Ask students to restate the description, explanation or example in their own words.
3.  Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph or symbolic representation of the term.
4.  Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the term in their vocabulary notebooks, such as games that enable them to play with terms.         

You'll find some examples of how to do these steps in the handout at THIS LINK

Check out this beautiful example of Marzano's strategies at work in a classroom.  You'll notice that the teacher has chosen a Tier 2 word...



His students said the word, spoke about the word (both to the teacher and peers), drew a picture and played a game that incorporated movement.  He even included some American Sign Language in the instruction!  He teaches 1-2 words per week and puts them on a word wall. I love that he said they "spent some quality time" with the word.  I just love this video.  I would almost declare this guy an honorary SLP!


  • It works at every grade level from K through high school.
  • When used in 24 classrooms - with one group using it and one not- the groups using it showed an average effect of 24 percentile points. That's amazing!!
  • It works best when the students using a description from their own lives- not when the teacher tells them one or they copy someone’s.
  • Drawing the picture may be the most crucial part of the process but no parts should be skipped. Achievement was less when parts of the process were skipped.
  • Games proved to be an important part and played a powerful part for recall.

In short, if you commit to Marzano's tried and true strategy, there's no picking and choosing; it's important that all parts are carried out. Many of my fellow SLPs in our district are "anti-games." If you are familiar with me and my products, you'll know I am PRO-game, and now I feel like I am in good company with Marzano. Games create moments of fun that are somewhat rare in school - now more than ever - and those associations made during games stick with kids. Not to mention it's instant and natural positive reinforcement for correct answers.

Recently while eating dinner at a local seafood restaurant, a server came to my table and gave me a hug. I had her in therapy from about first through third grade. She was the only student to whom I ever had to teach the /ʒ/sound (among other sounds). She's a brilliant girl in college now - on her way to be an engineer- and she told me that some of her best childhood memories included playing games with me in therapy. She said it made learning fun and she always asked Santa for the games we played. In fact, she said she still had a few.  Games make an impression- they make a moment and a memory. 

Marzano's 6 Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction is just one of the strategies I have to share with you for teaching vocabulary.  I'll pick up next time with 2 more that you can easily add to your language arsenal.  

If you haven't yet grabbed my Tier 2 vocabulary lists, lead back to Part 1 in this series, grab the freebie, and check out all of the lists. 

I hope all of you who celebrated Easter had a blessed one :) 




Saturday, April 8, 2017

Building Your Students' Vocabulary {Part 1 in a Series}


With vocabulary now identified as "an area of weakness" across my school district this year (based on standardized testing), I've been delving deeper into how we as SLPs and educators in general can improve our students' vocabulary.  It was past time I learned more about this gigantic piece of language that is so critical to literacy. Now that I have, I've been providing professional development to SLPs and special education staff throughout our parish. Why not blog about it, too? This is the first installment of a series about how we can build our students' vocabulary (and why we must!) I hope you find it informative. 

As speech-language pathologists, here are some things we know for certain about vocabulary...
  • There is a strong connection between a student’s vocabulary and his or her reading ability. The same is true for a student’s ability to listen, speak, and write.
  • Each person actually has 4 vocabularies, one each for reading, listening, speaking, and writing (listed here from largest to smallest in typical learners)
  • There is much overlap within the 4 vocabularies but students will always be able to recognize more words than they can produce. (Judy K. Montgomery, 2007)

This is knowledge we know and possibly take for granted. Did you ever notice that not everyone in education knows this?  I find myself explaining this time and again across my district. In these current times of, "Let's give him an accommodation for that," I find myself explaining that when a child cannot listen and comprehend, reading and comprehending will be equally or more difficult.  In fact, vocabulary experts agree that adequate reading comprehension depends on a person already knowing between 90 and 95 percent of the words in a text (Hirsch, 2003). Therefore, to fix the root of reading comprehension issue, we must address vocabulary. As a side note, we must not just provide accommodations for it. Accommodations are, in my opinion, often just a band-aid we stick on a problem when we should, in fact, be getting down and dirty fixing the root of problem. 

Likewise, when a child cannot express himself orally, formulating written language will be a humongous challenge (in 99% of cases with some rare exceptions).  Language is the prerequisite for understanding all subjects (ELA, math, science, social studies) and for expressing and showing one's knowledge of the subject matter.  While we all know that Common Core has those ever crucial Listening and Speaking Standards, (bravo to whomever wrote those and muscled them into CCSS), I find myself frustrated - on the verge of infuriated - that those seem to be there as a suggestion while the reading and math standards reign as king. 

Schools seem to have tunnel vision with their eyes focused only on the old classics: reading, writing and arithmetic.  Language - even in preschool and kinder - seems to be something schools expect children to arrive with so that they can get on with the business of reading and writing.  Thank goodness WE are there in the trenches in those schools ready and even expecting children to arrive without it, and we are there to deliver the message that some children to arrive without the language they need for school (or for life). In my mind, it's also our job to educate others (admin, teachers, paraprofessionals, pupil appraisal personnel) that these students are also at risk for literacy/academic, and social problems because language is tightly intertwined with everything else they'll be expected to learn and do. 

I hear this all the time, "he/she has no background knowledge." That is because he/she arrived on campus already behind the eight ball - likely due to a lack of vocabulary.  Here is some food for thought:

  • There is much overlap within the 4 vocabularies mentioned above but students will always be able to recognize more words than they can produce.
  • Students’ word knowledge is linked strongly to academic success because students who have large vocabularies can understand new ideas and concepts more quickly than students with limited vocabularies.
  • All students arrive at school with a lexicon. That lexicon is dependent on how many words he/she has heard in the home environment.
  • Children from middle class families hear about 48,000 novel words by the time they get to school. Children of professionals hear even more. 
  • Children of poverty hear about 13,000 novel words.  (If you want to read on this topic, check out the 30 million word gap by Betty Hart and Todd Risley
  • Children inherit their vocabularies from their parents so educational status of the parents plays a huge part in a child's vocabulary. Hart and Risley explain in the article mentioned above that eighty-six to 98% of words recorded in a child's vocabulary also exist in their parents' vocabulary.

THIS GAP IS WORD POVERTY, and this deficiency in vocabulary due to lack of exposure trickles down to reading and writing. This is where the lack of background knowledge stems from. 

Interesting facts:
1) Research shows that IQ is directly related to the number of words a child hears between birth and age 4.

2) In first-grade, high-performing students know about twice as many words as low-performing students, but that differential gets magnified each year, resulting in high-performing 12th grade students knowing about four times as many words as the low performing 12th graders (Hart & Risley, 1995).

Considering how far reaching and important vocabulary is, isn't it a little puzzling that there is so little class time devoted to vocabulary instruction?

I'll be very honest, while I certainly model new vocabulary in every single session of language therapy and use language therapy to "frontload" essential vocabulary students need to participate in novel studies or themed units,  I've never written an IEP goal centered around vocabulary.  I dabble in vocabulary and taught it as part of themed lessons, but I've never really tackled it head on or made it my main focus. Why?  It's just so big.  It's just too big of a bite to swallow. It seems endless, and that overwhelms me. Where do I even start? What words do I even choose? 

Let's talk about the most common ways educators teach vocabulary- at least based on what I've observed in my 22 years in the school system and a few I've tried myself...


  • Dictionary Use (define words) 
  • Teaching strategies for contextual clues (I actually love doing this at students' reading level and scaffolding up from there)
  • Teaching prefixes and suffixes
  • Teaching antonyms, synonyms, categorization
  • Teaching vocabulary related to a book, theme, etc.
  • Reading to or with students and discussing unknown words
  • Teachable moments (when students stumble up on a words they don't know)



DID YOU KNOW... most of these don't actually work (especially in isolation)?

  • Dictionary use doesn't work. Why? Because students need multiple exposures to words in multiple contexts before they can understand, remember and apply new words. (Nagy, 2005) Plus, this task is impossible for nonreaders. 
  • The odds of accurately predicting a word’s meaning from context clues is very low—ranging from 5 to 15% for both native English speakers and students who are English language learners (Beck et al., 2002) The exceptions are very skilled readers in high school.
  • Robert Marzano (vocab guru extraordinaire) explains that learning prefixes and suffixes can be helpful but the traditional way of giving students long lists of suffixes and prefixes is overwhelming and nonproductive; if this strategy is used, he recommends focusing on a handful of high frequency prefixes (un-, re-, in- and dis-).
  • Adams (1990) explains that teaching word parts (prefixes, suffixes) is worthwhile with older readers but teaching beginning or less skilled readers about them may be a mistake.
  • Struggling readers and students with language and learning disabilities in particular are often lacking in word analysis skills and the meta cognitive skills needed to apply strategies that involve recognizing and applying prefixes, suffixes, antonyms and synonyms to glean a word's meaning. (Joan Sedita, 2005) 
  • While teaching thematic vocabulary as well as reading to students and discussing unknown words are great ways to expose students to new words, direct vocabulary instruction should accompany those methods because exposure in multiple contexts is needed to truly move new words from a students' listening lexicon to their speaking and writing lexicon. 
So what about my dilemma of choosing which words to teach? Surely I'm not the only one who struggles with that. Well, researchers agree that vocabulary instruction should include Tier 2 words to get the most impact on speaking and writing across all settings (and across the curriculum).
I like to compare the tiers of vocabulary to a tiered cake...just because...
well, cake makes everything lovely and everyone happy.

So with our new talkers, of course we have to teach tier 1 words. Tier 1 includes foundational language and common, basic words. Tier 1 words are mostly concrete and rarely have multiple meanings. Most children learn these words easily. Tier 3 (the little top tier) are low frequency words that are very specific to a subject. These include all that pesky math vocabulary I detested in school. Since I'm now an SLP, those yucky math tier 3 words are irrelevant to me because I have very little need for math (except figuring out sale prices); they are low frequency in my life. While teaching Tier 3 words are worthwhile in a class such as science or civics, it's the Tier 2 words that are most useful to students. Tier 2 words are academic words that students will see throughout their schooling all across content areas.

Tier 2 words are:
  • words students will encounter in all subjects, on tests, and in rich conversations words that important for comprehension
  • words that may have multiple meanings
  • words that help students sound like mature language users when writing and speaking
After reading countless Tier 2 words lists that are all vastly different, I developed a list for the SLPs in my district to refer to. Basically, I included the words most widely accepted as crucial Tier 2 words, removed a bunch that I thought were ridiculous, and arranged them according to grade level (from prek through 12th grade).



You can download the Tier 2 vocabulary lists for 2nd and 3rd grades HERE and find all of the lists for K through 12th grade HERE

Please check back for my next blog post that will pick up exactly where I left off today.
Until then I'll leave you with this...

“Vocabulary is the glue that holds stories, ideas and content together… making comprehension accessible for children.” (Rupley, Logan & Nichols, 1998/99).


Jasper Roberts Consulting - Widget