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).


  1. This blog was just what I needed. Please post Tier 2 words soon!!! Thank you so much!

  2. Thanks so much for this blog post. I completely agree with everything you have said. I have done a lot of reading and research on Tier 2 words. I look forward to other posts in this series.

  3. Wow! What a ginormous gap between poverty level and middle class children. I read the 2nd part of this series first & had to come back and read this post. Very interesting! You've done your homework...I have NO idea when you find the time!

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  5. Thank you for this blog post! I struggle to get teachers to understand that their struggling readers likely need speech because they have vocabulary delays. Vocab deficits are very common in my school. I am going to use this as reference when I send out this year's referral guidelines! Thanks again!

  6. I often hear from fellow SLPs that "anyone" can teach vocabulary, and we should focus elsewhere... this is a great explanation of why SLPs have an important role in vocabulary instruction. Bravo on a fabulous post!


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