Robust Vocabulary Instruction

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Robust Vocabulary Instruction

Based on Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction

by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan

(notes for grades 3-6)

Key Concepts:

  1. Choose Tier 2 words for instruction.

  2. Recognize that there are different levels of word knowledge; word knowledge is multi-faceted. Determine the level of word knowledge that is your goal for your vocabulary program.

  3. Recognize that contexts for figuring out a word meaning may be misdirective, nondirective, general, or directive.

  4. When choosing words to teach, consider:

    1. Would students be able to explain these words using words that are already well known to them? (New words offer students more precise or mature ways of referring to ideas they already know about.)

    2. Are the words more precise or more complex forms of familiar words—not just synonyms?

    3. How generally useful is the word? Is it a word that students are likely to meet often in other texts? Will it be of use to students in describing their own experiences?

    4. How does the word relate to other words, to ideas that students know or have been learning? Does it directly relate to some topic of study in the classroom? Or might it add a dimension to ideas that have been developed?

    5. What does the word contribute to a text or situation? What role does the word play in communicating the meaning of the context in which it is use?

Choosing Words and Introducing Word Meanings:

  1. When reading aloud, if the purpose is comprehension of the text being read, talk about the word as you come to it.

  2. If the purpose is vocabulary development, introduce the word after the reading.

  3. Avoid asking: Who can tell me what __________ means?

  4. Introduce the word by giving a student-friendly explanation.

    1. Try to capture what is particular about a word and how it is typically used.

    2. Explain the meaning in everyday language.

    3. Anchor your explanation by including words such as something, someone, or describes.

  5. Regarding multiple meanings; don’t choose words whose meanings are not at all related:

    1. sound—what you hear; sound—the body of water; sound—sturdy

  6. Regarding multiple meanings; don’t choose words that have the same core meaning, but their meanings are so far apart it would not be helpful:

    1. mock—to imitate in a mean way; mock—an imitation of something like a mock battle

  7. Regarding multiple meanings; do choose words with multiple meanings if students already know one of the meanings:

    1. fast—moving quickly; fast—not eating for a period of time

What Robust Vocabulary Instruction Looks Like

Introducing the Words

  1. Introduce the words with student friendly explanations, making the wording meanings explicit and clear.

  1. Do short, lively activities that require students to process the meanings right away.

  1. Word Associations

Ask students to associate one of their new words with a presented word or phrase.

Which word goes with crook? (accomplice)

Which word goes with “gift to build a new hospital”? (philanthropist)

Which word goes with piano? (virtuoso)

Which word goes with kindergartner? (novice)

  1. Have You Ever…?

Help students associate newly learned words with contexts and activities from their own experience.

“Describe a time when you might urge someone, commend someone, banter with someone.”

  1. Applause, Applause! (shades of meaning, connotations)

Students clap in order to indicate how much they would like (not at all, a little bit, a lot) to be described by the target words: frank, impish, vain, stern. And, as always, why they would feel that way.

  1. Which Would…?

Form questions around target words by asking students which they would prefer between alternatives:

Which would you rather anticipate—your birthday or a dentist appointment? Why?

Which would you rather interact with—sharks or polar bears? Why?

Which would be easier to confine—butterflies or cats? Why?

  1. Simply Engage in the Word Meanings

When might you…?

How might you…?

Why might you…?

An Instructional Sequence for Teaching the Words

(Notes for grades 3-6)

Key Features of strong vocabulary instruction:

  1. Frequent and varied encounters with target words

  2. Robust instructional activities that engage students in deep processing

Example of an instructional sequence for teaching: words from Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (2011).

Day 1

Introduce the words on the first day by providing student-friendly explanations and describing how the words are used in the story. Do some of the Introductory Activities listed on the previous page.

Target Words

Story Context

Student-Friendly Explanation

admiration (p. 13, 230, 261); admire (p. 229-247)

Jack’s mother spoke of Miss Volker with admiration because Miss Volker was wise. Throughout the book, Miss Volker expressed her admiration for the women of Norvelt.

If you have admiration for people, you respect them and think about them with approval and sometimes wonder or surprise.

exasperation (p. 36); exasperated (p. 12, 103)

Miss Volker was exasperated when she found out that Jack didn’t know how to type.

When you’re exasperated, you are annoyed and irritated by something.

abscond (p. 30)

When Miss Volker wrote an obituary for Emma Slater, she told how Emma absconded with her life after being captured by Indians.

When you abscond, you leave suddenly and secretly, usually to avoid being seen.

implored (p. 109)

When Jack visited Mrs. Dubicki, she implored him to stay longer.

To implore is to ask for something with great urgency or need.

conceded (p. 117)

Mom wanted Dad to get help in fixing the airplane runway in their yard, but conceded when Dad said that he wanted to keep the project in the family.

To concede is to give in or agree that someone is right or has a good reason for doing something.

forlornly (p. 131)

When Jack’s dad told him that he still had to finish digging the bomb shelter, Jack shrugged his shoulders forlornly because he had to help Miss Volker.

Forlorn means miserable or unhappy.

incredulously (p. 167); incredulous (p. 175)

When Miss Volker told Jack that she wanted to bury the mice that she had poisoned, he was incredulous.

Incredulous means not willing to believe that something is true or real.

  • Display the words on a word wall or poster so students can refer to them throughout the week.

  • Students keep their own records of the words and their meanings in a vocabulary notebook.

Days 2-4
Choose follow-up activities in such a way that students interact with the words in scaffolded ways.

  1. Example/Non-example

If I say something that might may you feel forlorn, say “Oh no” in a forlorn voice. If not, don’t say anything.

  • Finding out that your best friend is moving to another state.

  • Reading that your favorite pop star has a new record.

  • Discovering that you left your backpack out in the rain.

If I say something that might exasperate you, say “No way” in an exasperated voice. If not, don’t say anything.

  • Learning that the schedule for you volleyball practice has been changed for the tenth time.

  • Finding out that your little sister has been using your closet for a playhouse.

  • Discovering that your dog has hidden one of your shoes again.

If I say something that would evoke your admiration, say “That’s admirable.” If not, don’t say anything.

  • A high school student walks his young neighbor to the bus stop each school day.

  • A nurse volunteers with the Red Cross on weekends to help in areas struck by disaster.

  • A young man sits in the handicapped section of the bus because he wants a seat but he has no disability.

(Alternate activity: Students differentiate between two descriptions by labeling them as an example or a non-example of the target word. Make the descriptions quite similar, differing only in features that are critical to the word’s meaning.) (In this example, the words are from a different text.)


  • A husband and wife argue about what to have for dinner.

  • A husband and wife kid each other about who ate more at dinner.


  • A boy tells his friends about his birthday party and hope they can come.

  • A boy counts the days until his birthday and wishes the time would go faster.


  • The player comes back with a quick answer after the referee calls a foul on him.

  • The player complains to the coach after the referee calls a foul on him.

  1. Word Associations

Which comment goes with a target word? (concede, implore, incredulous, abscond)

  • I told my mom how much I really wanted to go to the concert even though it was on a school night.

  • We knew the game was over when the other team scored a touchdown with 10 seconds left.

  • The news story told how the thief ha concealed the shoes he had stolen.

  • No one could believe what the mayor said because it was so unlike her.

  1. Generating Situations, Contexts, and Examples

The following questions hold the situation constant and challenge students to find ways to apply different words to it:

  • What would make someone say:

    • “I am totally exasperated!”

    • “I am filled with admiration!”

    • “I am incredulous!”

    • “I am ready to concede.”

    • “I am really forlorn today.”

  1. Word Relationships

Ask students to describe how two vocabulary words might be connected or related.

  • incredulous/admire (A person might do something so heroic and admirable that people would be incredulous when they read about it.)

  • implore/concede (After much imploring, a person might concede or give in.)

  • exasperated/forlorn (A person might be exasperated and then become forlorn because a situation is not improving.)

(Alternate activity: Ask students about the relationships between words.) (Different words are used for this example.)

  • Could a virtuoso be a rival? Explain.

  1. Writing

Provide students with sentence stems such as the following. The value of this format is that it prevents students from producing minimally informative sentences (“I felt admiration.”).

  • The citizens were incredulous when…

  • The dog absconded with…

  • The candidate refused to concede that she had lost the election because…

  • You could see how forlorn people were when they found out that…

  • The chef was exasperated with the waiter because…

  • The principal spoke of the retiring teacher with admiration, explaining that…

  • The little girl implored her friend to…

More extended writing can be generated by formats such as:

  • Think of a time when someone might need to concede. Write a little bit about that.

  • Think of someone you admire. Write about hwy you admire the person.

  • Think of a situation that involves someone absconding. Write a headline about the situation using the word abscond.

  1. Returning to the Story Context (going beyond the original context)

Having students return to the context in which they met the words is a powerful way to reinforce the connection between understanding vocabulary and understanding story ideas.

  • Find three examples of times when characters in the story were exasperated.

  • Select two situations in the story when you were incredulous.

  • After reading the obituaries in the story, which of the women did you most admire? Why?

  1. Ready, Set Go

This works well as the last instructional activity—the one before the next day’s assessment.

It consists of four activity sheets, or “laps,” which students complete as a partner times them. Each sheet lists the words on one side and the definitions on the other, and the students have to match them by drawing lines to connect each word and definition. The order of the words for each lap should be changed, and the wording of the definitions altered a little to ensure that students are not just associating specific words with a target word. The goal is to see if one could get faster across the laps.

***During the week, at times present alternative definitions for the target word. This is done so students are not simply memorizing the definition but have to process the description of the word in a meaningful way. This helps ensure students are learning the concepts represented by the words rather than the mere wording of a definition. Example:

  • ambitious

    • Really wanting to succeed in becoming rich or important.

    • Wanting to get ahead by becoming powerful.

    • Wants great success in life.

  • stern

    • Being very strict about how you look and what you do.

    • Very demanding about how you and others behave.

    • Acts hard and serious.

  1. Beat the Clock (alternate speed activity)

Students are given 1 ½ minutes to complete 14 True/False items.

  • Shrill sounds can hurt your ears.

  • Gregarious people would rather be alone.

  • It might be hard to have a conversation where there’s a commotion.

  • Frank people keep their thoughts to themselves.

Day 5

Key Ideas and Examples:

  1. The type of assessment depends on the learning goal. Remember what it means to “know” a word?

    1. Different measures lead to different conclusions about whether a student knows a word.

    2. If fairly straightforward knowledge is the goal, then multiple-choice items can be appropriate.

    3. If deeper knowledge is the goal, them more complex formats will provide the kind of information that will allow teachers to determine whether students have gained complete, precise, or deep understanding.

  2. Formats and Their Implications

    1. Multiple Choice

      1. The results are greatly influenced by the foils.

        1. Foils can introduce ideas that may confuse a learner by interfering with what they know.

        2. If the foils are very different from the meaning of the word, the student can get the item correct with very limited knowledge of the word.

      2. Multiple Choice tests can be manipulated to be easier or more difficult.

  1. Shades of meaning among the foils.

    Diligent means:

    1. Making a lot of money

    2. Working at an interesting job

    3. Always trying one’s best

    4. Remembering everything

    Shades of meaning among the foils.

    Diligent means:

    1. Fast

    2. Hardworking

    3. Lost

    4. Punished

  1. Identifying the word’s semantic field.

    Pyramid has to do with:

    1. farming

    2. noise

    3. movement

    4. math

    1. True/False

      1. True/False items can be made relatively easy or harder, just like multiple choice tests.

_____ People who have seniority have been someplace longer than other people.

_____ Seniority is related to time. (This is much more abstract and more difficult. Asking students to explain their answers can make this even more difficult.)

    1. Robust Activities (some of the instructional activities)

      1. Example/Non-example (essentially a True/False exercise)

Present items that ask students to distinguish between an example or a word and a non-example of a word. Both the example and the non-example should be designed to present situations that have similar features and thus require student thinking that zeros in on the meaning of the target word.

A woman refused to talk to reporters about the election.

A woman tells reporters which candidate won the election.


Your teacher tells you to have your parents come in for a conference.

Your teacher tells your parents how well you are doing in school.

Our neighbors once told us that they had lived in Florida.

Our neighbors are always talking about when they lived in Florida.

      1. Have students create examples:

        1. Describe how someone acts that shows being diligent.

        2. Tell about a time that you were perplexed.

        3. Describe some things that could make a person feel miserable.

      2. Ask students to describe what is alike and/or different for pairs of words that are semantically similar.

        1. berate/retort

        2. exotic/unique

        3. acquaintance/ally

        4. extraordinary/peculiar

      3. Context interpretation

        1. Students respond to questions about sentences containing target words.

        2. This task requires students to apply the word’s meaning to understand the context of its use.

        3. Students use knowledge of the words to draw an inference in order to make sense of the context. (comprehension)

        4. It can be made more or less challenging depending on whether the contexts show typical or not so typical uses for the target word.

    • When Father heard that Lisa had ripped up the letter from Steve, Father commended her for it. What do you think Father thought of Steve? (not so typical use)

    • When Sam and I arrived at Alvin’s front door, I had to urge Sam to knock on the door. How do you think Sam felt about going to Alvin’s house? (typical use)

    • Rhonda sent out wedding invitations to all the family, including Uncle Charles, who was a hermit. What do you think Uncle Charles’s answer was to the invitation?

    • Mr. Robinson, the high school principal, was in a very good mood after his meeting with the philanthropist. Why do you think Mr. Robinson was happy?

    • Mary thought that Jim was ridiculing her when he said that the cake she made looked beautiful. How do you think Mary thought her cake looked?

Bottom line for assessment: the assessments should match the goals.

Maintaining Attention to New Words

Key Ideas

  • Vocabulary research strongly points to the need for frequent encounters with new words if they are to become a permanent part of an individual’s vocabulary repertoire.

  • Those encounters should not be limited to the week in which words are the focus on instruction; rather the students should have opportunities to maintain their vocabulary learning and elaborate their understanding of words by meeting them in contexts beyond the instructional ones.

  1. Creating Classroom Reference Resources for Words

  1. Create a record of the words learned: classroom dictionary, word wall, set if index cards.

  2. Students in upper elementary levels and above should keep their own individual records of words that they are learning. These records should include each word, its meaning,a nd an example sentence.

  1. Incorporating Words into New Situations

    1. Notice when a target word appears in a subsequent text being read in class.

    2. Notice when a target word doesn’t necessarily appear in a text, but could be applied to the text situation. (Bring the word into a different text’s discussion.)

    3. Work the words into the Morning Message.

    4. Post humorous photos in the room and challenge students to write a sentence that describes the picture and uses a vocabulary word. (Write Around center.)

    5. Keep a list of words and make tally marks if someone in the class uses a word or finds it in classroom materials.

  2. Extension Beyond the Classroom

Word Wizard

Students gain points by bringing in evidence of hearing, seeing, or using target words outside the classroom. Word Wizard chart consists of a list of students’ names with a space to add tally marks as they brought in sightings or uses of words that had been introduced to their class. Students could earn extra-credit points for reporting sightings of target words or for using them. Students earn one point for telling their teacher where they heard or saw the word and how it was used. Students received certificates depending on their tallies: Word Wildcat, Word Whirlwind, Word Winner, Word Worker, and Word Watcher.

Variation: Ask student to identify or create a situation that could be described by a target word. For example, ask students to find something in the news that could be described as whimsical. Or, challenge them to find as many possible applications of a short list of target words (ultimate, diverse, unique) as they can in one evening—using sources such as the newspaper, books they read, TV programs, or their family’s conversation.

Instructional Contexts

Key Points:

  • Remember, instructional contexts are contrived to make word meanings transparent for students—but that is not enough.

  • A definition or explanation needs to be developed.

  • The reasoning behind deriving the meaning for the word needs to be made public for students.

  • At first, the teacher needs to provide some models for deriving meaning from instructional contexts—when the students are being introduced to the idea of deriving meaning from context and when a complicated and subtle context is being explored.

  • Teacher modeling is passive for students, so later it should be replaced by students attempting to derive word meanings from instructional texts with supporting questions that are carefully scaffolded by the teacher.

Naturally Occurring Contexts
Key Points:

  • There are some things that might be done to help students derive meanings of words from the contexts of naturally occurring texts.

  • The strategies used to help students determine word meanings from instructional contexts do not transfer to them being able to determine word meanings from naturally occurring contexts.

  • Low-ability students use different reasoning processes than high-ability students when trying to figure out word meanings from context.

  • There is a process to help students effectively derive word meanings from naturally occurring contexts.

5 Steps

  1. Read and Paraphrase:

Introduce the context and paraphrase it in a way that puts emphasis on the unfamiliar word.

  1. Establish Meaning of the Context:

Ask: What’s being said? What’s going on? Tell us what those sentences are all about. Is there anything else?

  1. Initial Identification/Rationale:

Ask: What do you think _____ might mean? Why do you think it is _____?

  1. Consider Further Possibilities:

Ask: Can you think of some other possible meanings? Why do you say ______? Can you think of anything else _________ might mean? What made you say that?

  1. Summarize:

Ask: What do we know about _______? And…? Any one of those might be possible meanings for ____ based on these sentences. _____ does mean __________.
The whole points of this process to get students to really think through what is being talked about and notice what information in the text might relate to a target word.

Students need to be aware of the varying amounts of information that are available from contexts and need to know when to stop the process as it might not be possible to come up with a likely meaning of a word.

If this happens, they need to consult a dictionary or ask the teacher.
Vocabulary and Writing
There is very little research on the relationship between vocabulary instruction and writing. What little research there is on the subject suggests that to affect writing, vocabulary instruction needs to be robust.
Vocabulary Instruction as an Intervention (RTI)
Results of research studies on vocabulary instruction as an intervention showed that Tier 2 (RTI tier 2) vocabulary instruction in the RTI framework is not different instruction but rather additional and more frequent instruction. Duration and intensity are the key variables. A way to provide more intensive instruction for at-risk students is to bolster initial instruction with modeling and more explicit questioning within activities that require reasoning about words and word relationships.

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