Blogstitute Week 7: Book choice and vocabulary instruction

July 31st, 2013

This week on the Blogstitute, author Lee Ann Tysseling talks about how picking the right books for the right readers, as well using the appropriate digital tools, can enhance vocabulary instruction. Lee Ann is the author of Word Travelers: Using Digital Tools to Explore Vocabulary and Develop Independent Learners.

I’m celebrating the successes that we’ve had this spring in comprehension, vocabulary, and improving student motivation to read. I’ve just sent our spring crop of Literacy Lab participants out the door. (Literacy Lab is the tutoring service provided by teachers enrolled in reading diagnosis and intervention courses at my university.) This spring the majority of students we saw had significant comprehension difficulties despite good oral reading accuracy. Most also claimed that they did not like to read. I expect this pattern is a side-effect of our state’s assessment system, which emphasizes words correct per minute in the primary grades. We achieved solid success with most of these students by finding the right book, working on vocabulary that the students chose, and introducing some attractive technology.

As we face the Common Core State Standards, I am paying more attention to book selection. Many teachers are reporting that they are being directed away from children’s or young adult literature because it isn’t “complex” enough. My personal experience is that we need to begin with the students’ interests and build from there. The students who come to Literacy Lab reinforce this stance. One sixth grader, Stephen (a pseudonym), finished reading an entire novel for the first time in his school career. His teacher helped him become engaged with Gary Paulsen’s book Hatchet by appealing to Stephen’s personal interest in becoming a pilot. One high school junior, Peter, was wildly enthusiastic about an essay from The Best American Nonrequired Reading collection about the effects of a police reality show and political forces that led to the death of a child. Peter had set a goal to begin working on his college-level reading skills and selected the essay himself from the table of contents. Our resistant ninth grader, Maxine, reread Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games—her English teacher was teaching the book to the entire class. Maxine was delighted to read the chapters again, in part because in the classroom she had trouble paying attention to the reading. Her class was reading most of the book aloud due to a shortage of books. Maxine, still in contact with her Literacy Lab teacher, has now finished the second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire. In each of these cases our Literacy Lab students discovered they could be readers and enjoy reading for their own personal interests and enjoyment. I believe a big part of this happened by focusing on self-directed comprehension strategies, working on vocabulary, and finding books that appealed to their interests.

Instruction for these students included vocabulary study using digital vocabulary resources. Thinking about Maxine’s reaction to Visual Thesaurus still makes me smile. She loved the format and dove into researching what this dictionary had to say about words related to her passion, Justin Bieber. She was disappointed that they didn’t really define his name, but she learned quite a bit about many other words related to this musician. We did have to encourage her a bit to use the app as a tool while reading The Hunger Games. Maxine was quite firm in letting us know she had already studied the vocabulary during her English class at school. As we begin using the Reciprocal Teaching or prediction log strategies with her, she began to uncover the bits of the book that she had not understood as her class read it and completed assignments. I recognized many of these comprehension problems as being related to vocabulary knowledge. As she and her Literacy Lab teacher worked together, Maxine learned to own the parts that challenged her. When we first began working with her, Maxine systematically covered up anything that she didn’t understand. I think that, many times, she did not even really recognize these lapses. In her mind, as long as she could say a word, she had done her work as a reader. Combined with the reading strategies, this attention to vocabulary resulted in very satisfying gains in comprehension of other materials.

Another of our Literacy Lab students, Arnold, loved both Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik. He used both regularly as he read Jaguar by Roland Smith. Arnold’s primary need was spelling. By encouraging Arnold to find interesting words in Jaguar and look them up on the Visual Thesaurus or Wordnik sites, his teacher was able to create a positive response to word study. Arnold was reluctant about working on spelling; he much preferred reading fantasy books. By finding a realistic fiction book that engaged him, combined with the technology draw of Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik, the teacher was able to pull him into word study—including spelling development.

We saw similar improvements in engagement and comprehension with two seventh-grade girls whom I would classify as “hostile readers.” Both were failing most of their classes and did not participate in their reading class (often spending much of the class time looking around the room or at their fingernails). I often had to grind my teeth as the Literacy Lab teacher used Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard with one of the girls, Serena. (I take issue with the commercialism and emphasis on name-brand designer clothing and accessories in this series.) But it worked!  Serena came to her tutoring sessions each week eager to open the book and start reading. Serena was a devoted follower of the television series and was amazed by how different the books were from the shows she had been watching. The other seventh grader enjoyed Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters by Gail Giles—a book that I enjoyed rereading as I responded to lesson plans. Both girls found that uncovering their own words for vocabulary study and the use of their Literacy Lab teacher’s cell phone dictionary helped them understand their reading and develop an interest in words (the Internet access at this site did not permit the use of mobile devices or computers). The vocabulary study combined with the use of student-directed comprehension strategies, such as prediction logs and comparison charts, paid great dividends in both comprehension and interest in reading.

Vocabulary study in our Literacy Lab always includes words that our students select from their reading. In some cases the words they choose are unfamiliar to them. Other students like to collect interesting words. This spring, in addition to using Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik, our students have also enjoyed Free Rice,, and the Moleskine app for iPads. The iPads we were using came with this app preloaded. If I were setting up my own iPad I would use Evernote instead. Both of these apps can also be replaced with a simple word study notebook. However, our Literacy Lab students’ eyes light up when we offer these technologies instead of the composition notebooks we have used in the past.

We had great success with other digital vocabulary resources as well. Storybird continues to be a favorite. Once we introduce this website to our students and their families, quite often they return to the next session having written a story or two. We are also beginning to experiment with Haiku Deck as a writing resource. Our literacy learners are motivated by the “eye candy” available on these sites and also are scaffolded in their writing by having some of the plot, setting, or character development eased so that they can focus on writing fluency—getting words and sentences out.

As you take some time off this summer and read a few good books, you might consider exploring some of these digital resources yourself. If you need reading ideas, you can follow my book blog at

Check out last week’s blog post on a similar topic and then leave a comment this week to win a free Stenhouse book! This week’s winner is Dana. Receive 20% off on your order of any Stenhouse book by visiting the Stenhouse website or calling 800-988-9812.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute,Reading

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lacey  |  August 2nd, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    Thank You for all the wonderful vocab and writing sites. I look forward to checking them out! Also, such a good reminder to find books kids like and can connect with. It makes all the difference.

  • 2. beth  |  August 2nd, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    My favorite sentence of this post is “My personal experience is that we need to begin with the students’ interests and build from there.” Yes!! We need to remind students we see them as people and not test data, and this is the best way.

    Thanks for all the websites to check out. I’m always grateful for resources to make my practice better.

    Enjoy the last couple of weeks of your summer.

  • 3. Stacie Lawhon  |  August 4th, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    Sharing your vast knowledge is so wonderful! I can’t wait to share this wealth. Thanks for everything.

  • 4. Teacher Contests and Gran&hellip  |  August 5th, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    […] Publishers Blogstitute:  Head over to the Stenhouse Publishers blog to comment and be entered to win a free Stenhouse book.  Ends Tuesday, August […]

  • 5. Tracy  |  August 6th, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    I echo Beth’s response about the quote she highlighted. I find whether primary or upper grades, if there is no interest on the part of the student there is no love of the reading.

  • 6. Jamie Armstrong  |  August 13th, 2013 at 9:11 am

    I enjoyed the vignettes showing how many students, after being considered struggling readers, came to enjoy a book. As you say, student interest is the key for assisting students to overcome their obstacles to reading. Finding an interesting book with manageable vocabulary makes all the difference to begin with. Thank you for sharing this sensible, effective approach for helping students to become engaged readers.

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