I don’t remember much from high school, but I do strongly remember how much I despised those orange vocabulary books. If you didn’t experience these books as either a student or teacher, you’ve probably seen something similar in your time. They were leveled stand alone vocabulary workbooks that included a word list and exercises, like fill-in-the-blank sentences and analogies, to practice the meaning.
Even as a high schooler, I realized I wasn’t retaining the meanings of these vocabulary words from this workbook despite studying and performing well on the quizzes. As a grad student doing research on this topic, I learned why: students best learn vocabulary through multiple encounters with words in nuanced contexts (McKeown, 2019).
The practice with those words weren’t through authentic encounters; in other words, they weren’t encountered through reading. And, they definitely weren’t nuanced enough, meaning the exercises in the workbook weren’t providing ways to encounter the words in different contexts.
In 2019, Margaret McKeown published a clinical focus article summarizing the years of research on effective vocabulary instruction. The instructional recommendations are clear, “Over several decades of investigation, a strong consensus has formed about features of effective vocabulary instruction, which can be summarized as follows: present both definitional and contextual information, provide encounters with words in multiple contexts, and engage students’ active processing of word meanings.”
This article is going to summarize these findings and provide recommendations for how to teach vocabulary to high schoolers. This approach can also be found in my Contextual Vocabulary Program.
1. Choose the Vocabulary Words Wisely
Background on Vocabulary Word Tiers
The first, and likely most challenging, decision in any vocabulary program is to choose vocabulary words. With so many words in the English language, how do we choose the right words? Obviously, we can’t teach them all. That’s what McKeown and her colleagues attempted to answer in 2002. They developed tiered vocabulary. Here’s how words are categorized according their tiered system:
- Tier 1 words are words associated with oral language; students learn through every day speaking and listening.
- Tier 2 words are words associated more often with written language and less often with oral language. They include words related to both fiction and nonfiction. McKeown uses “coherent, diminish, or eloquent” as examples.
- Tier 3 words are words associated with specific disciplines or domains, like the word pedagogy in the domain of education or volley in the domain of soccer. McKeown notes that these words are best learned within the specific domain.
So, if students learn Tier 1 words through everyday communication and Tier 3 words in specific domains, that leaves us with Tier 2 words. That still leaves a pretty large group of words. So, McKeown recommends choosing words from what students are reading, fiction and nonfiction.
Put It Into Practice
To make this even more effective (and manageable), I recommend a student-led approach. In this case, students generate their own vocabulary word list from what they’re reading. For one, it can be very valuable to give choice and voice. Giving students choice and honoring their voice can help with motivation and interest. Secondly, it should save you a lot of time in identifying Tier 2 words that are of high interest to them. To begin, I give students Vocabulary Bookmarks and ask them to look for words as they are reading that are new or used in an interesting context, in other words Tier 2 words.
The bookmark approach works great because they can quickly record words and page numbers without too much of an interruption of their reading. Once they’ve found 5-20 words (depending on the length of the work), students can engage in a collaborative word study group, or you can create a class word list from their words (a more traditional approach). If you choose the latter, during a group share, decide on a group of words together. What you do with these words also matters. We’ll cover that in the next step.
2. Examine the Context
Before students can dive into new contexts, it’s helpful for them to first examin the original context. That requires students to go back into the text and understand how the word was being used. Remember, on their first read through, they likely only considered a surface-level meaning of the word, if any meaning at all. So going back into the text will help students look deeper into the context and practice internal dialogue comprehension skills. As you can see, this is a valuable way to practice text-dependent analysis.
Put It Into Practice
At this stage, students should work independently to explore the word in the context and define the word based on that context. A workshop model is perfect for this independent work because you can conference with students to help them find the right context as they work. Here are the two questions I ask students to guide them in this effort:
- How is it used?
- What does it mean?
Here’s an example of a word I chose from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde:
|quixotic||Cecily uses quixotic to describe Algernon because she thinks it’s romantic, but unrealistic that he would be able to reform himself for her.||Something described as quixotic might sound good but is unrealistic and impractical.|
Notice I didn’t give a dictionary definition? The “What does it mean?” question is written as such so that students are making connections from the way it’s used to the dictionary definition without copying the dictionary definition. This tells me more about the context than a simple copy and paste from dictionary.com.
It’s also important to note that modeling all of these steps from choosing words to exploring contexts can be greatly benefited with teacher modeling. Modeling with a think aloud approach will give students guidance and confidence that they’re on the right track.
3. Explore New Contexts
As I’ve already noted, single experiences are not enough to grow a rich understanding of words in the English language. The goal then should be to incrementally encounter words in a variety of contexts to grasp a general understanding of the word that can then be examined in nuanced contexts (McKeown, 2019).
Put It Into Practice
To introduce students to new contexts, first have them explore the meaning of the word in relation to their life. I, therefore, ask them: How could this word be applied to you?
Here’s an example from the word quixotic, which was described above:
|quixotic||Cecily uses quixotic to describe Algernon because she thinks it’s romantic, but unrealistic that he would be able to reform himself for her.||Something described as quixotic might sound good but is unrealistic and impractical.||I start things that sound good and seem like a fun idea until I start them, and then I realize I probably can’t do it without a lot more help or time. Last year, I decided to paint my bookshelf. It seemed easy enough, but I didn’t realize it needed to be sanded, primed, painted, and sealed. I needed way more help than I thought, and it took two weeks instead of one afternoon like I originally thought.|
This type of reflection encourages students to see a new context in a familiar subject: themselves. Since students are still working independently at this point, to encounter new contexts, I like to add a collaborative element. I use small group task cards that include both a teaching and learning element. These include activities like, picture it and ask a question. Then, have students engage with each other to learn about each other’s words. This final step offers new opportunities for exploring new contexts. It also gives students an opportunity to engage in other instructional methods to learn new contexts.
4. Provide Direct Instruction
This final step is optional, but it’s a great way to blend the student-centered vocabulary approach described above and more traditional instructional lecture-based review. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) describe Anchored Word Learning as a direct vocabulary instruction method coupled with a read aloud. Traditionally, this approach is used with elementary students during a picture book read aloud, but it can be used with secondary students too.
Put It Into Practice
To combine this approach with the above activities, you can choose a small set of words from the words students have already identified in their independent and collaborative learning activities.
Then, have one student (the student who chose that word originally) read the page that the word shows up on. Alternatively, you could read the page instead.
Next, this is where the direct instruction occurs. Bring attention to the specific vocabulary word and provide a definition. Give examples of the word in new contexts. Finally, ask students questions that require them to engage with the word in a context familiar to them. For example, for quixotic, I might ask, “What is something you started only to realize it was a quixotic endeavor?”
This would also be a great place to point out morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest units of language, like roots, prefixes, and suffixes. McKeown (2019) explains, “No need to go into language history or Latin, but just plant the seed about language having meaningful parts.”
For my complete approach for vocabulary instruction, check out my Student-Led Contextual Vocabulary Program. This Contextual Vocabulary Program is a student-centered research-based approach to teach Tier 2 vocabulary with any text or curriculum.
- Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York, NY: Guilford.
- McKeown, M. G. (2019). Effective vocabulary instruction fosters knowing words, using words, and understanding how words work. Language, speech, and hearing services in schools, 50(4), 466–476. https://doi.org/10.1044/2019_LSHSS-VOIA-18-0126