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January 13, 2023

How to Select Vocabulary Words to Teach

As teachers it is our job is to close the gap between the language rich and the language poor.  Check out the previous blog post, Do you have a language rich classroom? where I provided EIGHT ways to make your classroom literacy rich!

One of the eight ways to make your classroom environment rich with literacy is by teaching VOCABULARY!  

Vocabulary instruction includes selecting the right words, explicitly teaching them and then giving students ample opportunities to use those newly learned terms.

We are going to take a deep dive into vocabulary instruction with the next few blog posts--taking it one step at a time.

First, lets explore how we select the right words. 

Determining which words to teach our students can be tricky.  There are just SO. MANY. WORDS!

Leading literacy experts (e.g. Archer & Hughes, Beck, Graves, Stahl & Nagy) all agree on the following five rules when selecting vocabulary to explicitly teach.

1. Choose words students probably don't know

There is no reason to spend time teaching terms students already know.  To gauge whether a student knows the meaning of a word, see if they can correctly use it in a sentence.  Or, have students rate their own understanding by giving you a fist to five whether they know that word or not. 

2. Choose words that are crucial for text understanding

Select words that critical for understanding the text.  Students need to be taught the words that are needed to understand the central theme or main idea of the text selected.  

3. Choose words that students will encounter often

Select high utility words--words that students are likely unfamiliar with, but will see often in future lessons or in a variety of contexts.  For example words like detest, muttered and hurl are better choices than metamorphosed or longhorn beetle. 

4. Teach words that are difficult to learn without explicit instruction

Select words that would be hard to understand, unless explicitly taught.  Many times words that have multiple meaning are perfect words to select.  For example words like calculating or transparent have multiple meaning depending on the context in which they are used.  Explicitly teaching these words helps student's fully grasp all of their meanings. 

5. Select 3-5 words for each text

It is best practice to only teach 3-5 words per text selection.  You may determine to increase that  depending on the needs of your children.  Beck and her colleagues recommend a goal of 400 words per year for teachers to directly teach.  For those 400 words, Beck recommends a minimum of 10 interactions per word. 

If you are looking for more information on how to best select vocabulary words to explicitly teach, check Choosing Words to Teach by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan published on Reading Rocket's website.  These ladies are the true guru's of teaching vocabulary!

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