Friday, April 25, 2014

Vocabulary Instruction

I've been reading up on vocabulary instruction the past few months.  Vocabulary has been a concern for me this year as I notice more and more that my friends definitely need to expand theirs. It is something that my district is actually working on now to help our students across the board.

From my grad school classes, I knew a lot about vocab but wanted to read some more current work.  Earlier this week, I noticed a book had been added to a resource shelf in my school that I had actually read a couple of months ago.  It is Vocabulary for the Common Core by Robert J. Marzano and Julia A. Simms.  You can't really talk about vocabulary without having read some Marzano!

I have to say, I really like this book.  It is not so bogged down with technical terminology that your eyes cross after a while.  It's actually an easy read that is straight to the point with data to support their theories.  So, what follows is my take on what I read.  Your interpretation may vary!  Of course, I can't include everything the book covers, but I will try to highlight some of the key parts in each section.

The book is divided into three parts.  The first part has four short chapters and discusses the importance of vocabulary instruction, gives a six-step process for instruction, explains the hierarchy of words from the common core, and tells how to build a vocabulary program for an individual teacher or a school-wide program.  I am going to spend some time on Part 1 and just mention a thing or two about Parts 2 and 3.

I should note now, if you don't have a real interest in vocabulary instruction, you may find this all a bit blah, blah, blah. It is kind of long and all vocab, all the time! No hard feelings!  I get it!

Part 1: Vocabulary Instruction for the Common Core Standards

Chapter 1: The Importance of Vocabulary
This chapter goes into great detail discussing the importance and relevance of a student's oral vocabulary experiences to future vocabulary acquisition. It is amazing how significant the vocabulary gap is related to socio-economic status and how often parents speak to their children.  It creates a "cumulative disadvantage (p.7)" where this deficit of early oral language experience affects a child's ability to acquire new vocabulary in the long term.  There is data to support significant differences in vocabulary size and IQ at age 3 between children from professional families with frequent parent conversation and children from low socio-economic families with much lower parent conversation.  This isn't something we as teachers can control, so it seems to make the case for the importance of vocabulary instruction as a regular part of the school day.

Another interesting point was how having a larger vocabulary enables children (us!) to make mental categories of related words, which in turn allows higher level thinking where students note nuances in word.  This creates word choice that is more exact, expressive, and appropriate.   

The chapter ends with data supporting direct vocabulary instruction to percentile gains in assessments.  The key to this is that it doesn't support random vocabulary instruction, but the importance of "direct instruction about a targeted set of vocabulary terms. (p. 11)"  I'll come back to this point later because it is important.

Chapter 2:  A Six-Step Process for Vocabulary Instruction
This was a really interesting chapter, but one of the main points I LOVED is the difference between definition and description. I was literally saying, "Yes!" again and again as I read. Essentially it makes the point that sending children to the dictionary for a definition is often one of the least effective ways of teaching word meaning.  Yes! It is! I have always believed this. How many times have you had to explain a definition because the definition itself contains unknown words or is not relevant enough to be clear to your friends?  So, you say, "Well, it's LIKE this. . . " or, "It's WHEN. . ."  We define words by explaining and giving examples.  That is how our students usually come to understand definitions. I'm not saying the dictionary is bad at all, but it can't be the be all and end all of defining words. As noted in the book, the goal of the dictionary people is to define that term in the most succinct way they can to preserve room. They are not necessarily trying to provide the most easily understood definition or provide multiple examples to clarify meaning. This is why giving students a list of words to look up is so ineffective if we leave it at that.

The chapter focuses on a six-step process of direct vocabulary instruction with examples of how to do each step and suggested activities.  I would bet that most of us have done all the parts of this process at some point but not necessarily as part of a six-step plan of direct instruction. I think the biggest caveat to the whole process is finding the instructional time to do it all. It is well worth the time, but there is so much more we have to teach.  You would need to look at your literacy instruction time and see how it might fit.  Or, see how you can modify it to fit. My opinion is doing some of it is better than doing none of it!

Chapter 3: Vocabulary Terms From the Common Core State Standards
Oh, the common core!  It is everywhere!  Marzano and Simms review Isabel Beck's 3 Tiers of Vocabulary.  If you aren't familiar with them, THIS LINK will take you to a short Power Point created by Beck and her colleagues which explains it and provides information on vocab instruction with ELL students.  Essentially, Tier 1 words are the common words we all know: chair, dog, table, pretty, etc.  Tier 2 words are not so common in every day language, but we encounter them through experience and  in text and they become part of our language.  Tier 3 words tend to be content specific and used only in the context of the particular content, think science terms, math vocabulary, etc.  Essentially, this chapter explains how the word lists in Part 2 (tier 2 words) and Part 3 (tier 3 words) were selected.  They were words that came from the common core standards themselves and words previously identified by Marzano.  The book goes on to explain the hows and whys of the selection process.

Chapter 4: Building a Vocabulary Program
This was a very informative chapter if you are looking for a way to begin. This is where you create that "targeted set of vocabulary terms" mentioned in chapter 1. It provides a three-step process for individual teachers and a six-step process for schools/districts to use when selecting words for vocab instruction.   These are the word lists you would use in the six-step instructional model explained in chapter 2.

If I could identify one point from this chapter as significant, for me it would be the fact that teachers can, on their own, use the process described to select terms to teach, but "school or district wide vocabulary programs can be even more powerful. (p. 51)"  This is what I hope to see in my school.  Marzano does a great job of explaining how schools can form a committee to create a systematic word instruction model very simply.  It just makes so much sense to me to do it this way rather than have every teacher teach words they think are important with no correlation between grade levels and content. Marzano acknowledges that we can't teach all the words, and encourages the reader to select terms that are most relevant for them.  He even provides a ratings scale to use so that all member of a committee can rank words to really determine which they feel are most important in a more objective manner. This takes us to the last two parts of the book.

Part 2: Tier 2 Vocabulary Terms From The Common Core State Standards
This is literally a selection of words from the common core that are organized by the kinds of words they are (too much to explain here, but if you read the book you will know what I mean.) They are not categorized by grade level simply because they can appear at many different grade levels as they are those Tier 2 words that students may or may not be familiar with at different ages based on their word experiences.

Remember when I wrote about providing students with descriptions as well as definitions when defining words? Well,what I like about this section is that for each word it provides a math and language arts based description that the teacher can use when explaining a word.  This is where the nuances of words comes into play.  The connotation we have for a word in a math context may be very different for the connotation we have for the same word in a literacy context.

Part 3: Tier 3 Vocabulary Terms From The Common Core State Standards
Another list.  This time, they are those content specific tier 3 words.  Marzano took the standards and pulled related vocabulary that students need to know.  They are listed in a chart by the strands of the standards.  There is also a matrix that spans three grade levels for each word; suggested grade levels (based on the standards) for what grade the word should be introduced, practiced, and mastered.  It is an amazing list of common core words that bring order to all the academic vocabulary we need to teach.

Overall, this is a good book.  I think it is particularly useful if you want to bump up your vocabulary instruction but don't know where to start.  The lists in Part 3 are amazingly helpful if you are wondering what academic vocab you should be covering at your particular grade level. The six-step process for instruction is awesome but also time consuming. You would really have to think about how to make it work for you.  The book is not a hard read and can be read relatively quickly.  Of the 266 pages, the first 54 are essentially all of the text.  The rest of the book is almost all word lists.

I have to say, I read the heck out of this book!  If ever I needed an example of a book to show my students how to stop and jot when reading or do a close read, this book would be a perfect choice. I think it comes from being a lit major in college.  I feel like I tend to write more notes (and arrows and asterisks) than the author does text sometimes!

As I'm still knee deep in vocabulary thoughts, the book I'm currently reading is Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by (who else?) Isabel Beck, Margaret McDeown, and Linda Kucan.
This was first published in 2002 but had been revised in 2013.  I vaguely remember reading it years ago but have forgotten enough to want to read the revised edition.  This one is slower reading, so it may be a bit before I can post about it.

So, that's where I have had my nose buried lately.  Brushing up on vocab. Do you have a specific model for vocab instruction in your school? What works for you?  I am planning on a follow-up post soon of some vocab silliness I always do with my friends that has always helped build vocab. Words can be fun!


  1. Great review. I plan on getting the Marzano book. Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. Glad it was helpful. Hope you like the book!