Blogstitute: Words Still Matter

July 15th, 2015

We have the amazing Janet Allen on the blog today, with an inspiring post about the power of words and how to make vocabulary instruction a part of everything you do in your classroom! Janet’s latest book is Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary. We have one more week left in our Blogstitute and we’ll hear from Mark Overmeyer and Brenda Overturf! I hope you will join us again and follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15!

tools-for-teaching-academic-vocabularyWords Still Matter
Janet Allen

I was working with literacy coaches last week when one of them sighed and said, “What a year.” It was quiet for a moment, and I could literally see others stopping to personalize her words to the school year they had just experienced. Three simple words had given us pause not because of the complexity of the words but because, for each of us, those words called up hundreds of other words and images. And, while I hadn’t been in my own classroom for many years, I certainly had many experiences that reminded me just how much words matter.

When I left my classroom in Maine in the early 1990s, I filled my van with boxes that contained my students’ words, my teaching journals that were filled with my reflections and resolutions, and my favorite books. Other, less-significant items were left in the hands of movers. Today I’m in the messy process of moving again. This will be my fourth home since moving to Florida and today, as with all other moves, I packed my books, my journals, and my students’ words. I think it is because I know the power of words that I have spent so much time writing about vocabulary instruction. Unfortunately for my students, it took me a long time to find effective strategies to help them become inquisitive word learners and powerful word users.

As with many of you, for me summer was always a time for teaching resolutions. Or, it was once I hungrily read one book after another—books I wanted to read and not ones I had to read. One of the most common summer resolutions for me was to figure out a way to teach vocabulary more effectively. A teacher from Ohio once shared with me a fourth grader’s words from a self-assessment of his handwriting. He wrote: “I don’t think my handwriting has improved because I have been doing it ‘half fast.’” On reflection each summer, I felt as though my teaching of vocabulary the previous year could have been described in the same way. In spite of my resolutions, each year I fell into the trap of seeing vocabulary as something we did but not part of everything we did. I now know that teaching vocabulary has to be a part of everything we do.

When I decided to write Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I had already written two books focused on vocabulary: Words, Words, Words and Inside Words. In each of those books, I focused on an array of teaching strategies and graphic organizers to support students in learning a variety of words across all content areas. In writing Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I set out to clarify that word-learning depends on a variety of factors—purpose for knowing the word, how it differs from similar words, and how and when to use the word. I believe the instructional tools we use depend on how deeply we want students to know a word. I used Graves’s (2006) research and organized the tools based on four components of a comprehensive vocabulary program as a reminder that a focus on words that lead to academic success needs to be addressed in all activities and in all classes. In fact, a district where I worked required that teachers use this tool to ensure they were focused on words from informal conversation and reading to direct instruction.


I don’t want to keep you from that summer reading for too long, so let me just highlight something about each of the four components.

Rich and Varied Language Experiences

Rich language experiences mean that students will have opportunities to encounter interesting words each day. These encounters should be so varied that the words draw them into learning many more words than you may have intended. As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from Joy Hakim (author of A History of US and The Story of Science) sharing her new e-book, Reading Science Stories. I was immediately so engrossed in reading these narrative nonfiction pieces that I had a hard time stopping to continue writing (and unpacking). I laughed out loud at her engaging use of language:

Most priests and teachers and ordinary people have a hard time dealing with the astonishing idea that the universe does not revolve around us. Copernicus’s discovery leads to another idea that many find hard to accept (and a few find exciting): if Earth is not the center of the universe maybe the universe was not made just for us. (2015, 123–124)

While you may know someone who still doesn’t understand this concept, there is no doubt in my mind that readers will learn a great deal of academic, domain-specific words when they are embedded in a text with such rich language.

Teaching Individual Words

Teaching individual words is where you would be very likely to use a graphic organizer, concept map, or academic vocabulary cards. These words are typically related to the content or text students will encounter; they are so important, they deserve the extra time and attention. I receive lots of e-mails with humorous accounts of students attempting to write sentences with words they have looked up. Often the dilemma is that they didn’t know the target word and they also didn’t know the words used to define the target word.

In this section of the flipchart, I focused on four types of words necessary for academic success:

  • General academic words (such as analyze, hypothesize, and paraphrase)
  • Domain- or discipline-specific words (such as factor, integer, and rational numbers)
  • Topic-specific words ( such as argumentative, menacing, and gregarious when writing a character analysis)
  • Passage-critical words (such as strain when used in a completely different way—e.g., in talking about a flu or other illness)

One of the most difficult aspects of this component will be choosing the word or words you want to teach. Remember, you can’t teach students every unknown word in any text. This is a good place to think about how deeply students need to know a word in order to support comprehension and communication.

Teaching Strategies for Learning New Words

Given that most teachers can teach about 350 new words a year through direct instruction, teaching strategies for learning unknown words independently is critical. Stahl and Fairbanks summarized the problem: “Since a vocabulary teaching program typically teaches 10 to 12 words a week or about 400 a year, of which perhaps 75% or 300 are learned, vocabulary instruction is not adequate to cope with the volume of new words that children need to learn and do learn without instruction” (1986, 100). I decided to focus on the three strategies that have been shown to have the greatest impact on learning new words independently:

  • How to Use Internal Context Clues: Prefixes, Root Words, Suffixes
  • How to Use External Context Clues to Learn New Words
  • How to Use Resources to Support Learning New Words

Knowing how to create an effective strategy lesson using a hook, direct instruction, guided/independent practice, and closure is critical to this component of a comprehensive vocabulary program.

Fostering Word Consciousness

In Jennifer Donnelly’s book A Northern Light (2003), the narrator reminds us that interesting words embedded in interesting texts make words more memorable:

I tried to put my mind back on Paradise Lost, but it was hard going. Somniferous was my word of the day. It means sleep inducing, and it was a good one to describe that dull and endless poem. Milton meant to give us a glimpse of hell, Miss Wilcox said, and he succeeded. (60–61)

I love that one of the components of a vocabulary program is heightening students’ awareness of words. Riddles, games, political cartoons, interesting texts, lateral thinking puzzles, and hundreds of other activities help students become more conscious of language. Two of the characteristics I look for in this component are inquisitiveness and risk-taking. When students start to question a word’s meaning or attempt to use words other than safe words, you know they are developing word consciousness. I will always remember three boys who hung out in my room so much that I sometimes forgot they were there. When the principal stopped in my room after school to talk about a department issue, one of the boys decided to jump into the conversation. I gave all three my “teacher look” and ushered them out of the room. As I closed the door, one of the boys said to the others, “We wouldn’t have gotten in trouble if you hadn’t been earsdropping!”

Words Still Matter

Words do indeed still matter. Many of you have folders with notes from students with words you want to keep forever. Others of you have words you have kept to tell your story. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that words are about more than a standard or checking off an instructional requirement. And, since I believe that words still matter, my hope for you is that this summer will be your summer to spend time with words—reading, writing, sharing, and storing. There is no doubt in my mind that effective instruction is critical, but I believe that our love of words is also critical. I wish each of you a word-filled summer as you anticipate supporting others in growing a love of words. Nearly 100 years ago, Horace Mann said, “When growing things, one former is worth a thousand reformers.” I don’t know about you, but those are words I needed to hear.


Donnelly, J. 2003. A Northern Light. New York: Harcourt.

Graves, M. F. 2006. The Vocabulary Book: Learning & Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hakim, J. 2015. Reading Science Stories. E-book, published by author.

Stahl, S. A., and M. M. Fairbanks. 1986. “The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction: A Model-Based Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 56(1): 72–110.



Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lisa C  |  July 16th, 2015 at 7:35 am

    I’ve been reflecting a lot on spelling this summer, and truly recognize the need to add consistent vocabulary instruction to my school day. I feel like I expose them to a lot of great words, and we discuss them, but not in a formal way – always as a side note. And yes…choosing the words to teach is going to be the tricky part!

  • 2. Julie Clay  |  July 16th, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    I’m so glad to see a post by Janet Allen. Her book Words, Words, Words really changed my approach to selecting, using, and teaching vocabulary in my classes. She is quite correct when she says choosing vocabulary words to focus on is difficult and that we can’t teach every unknown word. Her strategies to assess students’ word knowledge prior to reading help me make vocabulary decisions. Repeated and varied exposure has been one of my goals when considering the inclusion of vocabulary. Gone are the days of “look it up in a dictionary!”

  • 3. Diane Anderson  |  July 16th, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    “I decided to focus on the three strategies that have been shown to have the greatest impact on learning new words independently” – I think there is so much practical wisdom in that statement. It can be overwhelming to think how many words students need to know compared to how many we can directly teach in a school year, but can focus on three strategies. Teaching strategy lessons well, we can help students become independent word learners. We must, because learning 300 words a year is not enough.

  • 4. Kelly Mogk  |  July 17th, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas — I go round and round each year rethinking how to best tackle this wordy monster. I like giving students room to choose words on their own, along with a fairly short list of academic vocab from me. We make our own class lexicon and post new words we love up around the room… but I always feel that I am missing something. I want to do more with internal context clues without losing their engagement. Ahh, words. Always something new to try! 🙂

  • 5. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 19th, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Thanks for the inspiring words about vocabulary Ms. Allen! Your post reminds me of a reading lesson I did this year; we went over the word precarious. It still makes me smile to think of my second graders reminding each other to not tip in their chairs because it was precarious! I think it is also important, too, to think about how we expose kids to vocabulary through our every day speech. If we use the vocabulary we want students to know, the exposure will be multiplied.

  • 6. Links I Loved Last Week: &hellip  |  July 19th, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    […] Janet Allen shares strategies for building academic vocabulary. […]

  • 7. Sarah  |  July 19th, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    When I went from teaching middle school to high school, I feel like vocabulary instruction fell by the wayside. I should never have let this happen. I do use a lot of good vocabulary and we read some works with some great language, but it isn’t the same. Here is yet another reminder of something I need to tweak in my arsenal of teaching techniques and curriculum map.

  • 8. Cheryl  |  July 19th, 2015 at 11:24 pm

    I am so appreciative of the reminders about teaching vocabulary by way of strategies. It is learning the strategies that empower us to become life-long learners. I have such a love for words myself and an interest in where they come from, etc that it is hard to imagine students not having that same enthusiasm =). This post is good for me to think a bit more about how to incorporate vocabulary instruction more effectively. Thank you!

  • 9. Joanne Bell  |  July 20th, 2015 at 7:13 am

    I too, believe that vocabulary instruction is very Important. I have seen so many students not understand what they are reading because of lack of comprehension of the words. Thank you for a very needed and timely book.

  • 10. Teresa  |  July 23rd, 2015 at 12:58 am

    Thanks for another important post. As I spend my last few days getting ready for a new school year, I am tossing around ideas of what I can do better. Vocabulary is one area that needs improvement. I try to find short texts with interesting words that we can discuss and imitate in class. They also get bonus points and/or small prizes when they find assigned vocabulary words in their own reading. This post has reminded me to teach those internal and external context clues so my students to learn words on their own. Sometimes I forget that even my strong readers need a reminder about these.

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