“I have observed teachers with a passionate interest in words and watched how they share
this love with children, and I find it very hard to describe how they do what they do. No book on
vocabulary instruction or set of activities can accomplish what these
teachers do, spontaneously
in the classroom.” Thus, Ellin Keene in
provides teachers with a reality check
before engaging with the following material.
The word study activities offered here are simply recipes for preparing students to inges
words in a variety of ways. Choose and use what works. This guide is designed to increase word
consciousness through robust vocabulary instruction so that, in the words of one state’s
standards: “Students use the power of language ethically and creativel
Relying heavily on Janet Allen’s philosophy, “…as a teacher I should not be teaching one
way to teach vocabulary for all words, for all my students, for the whole year. Rather, I should
be creating a language
rich environment with lots of reading, t
alking, and writing in which
varying levels of instruction occur.” This guide seeks to help teachers create that environment. In
Allen’s books (
Words, Words, Words
) she lists the ingredients to help students
learn and use academic and spec
If teachers desire language
rich classrooms, they need to:
Build background knowledge
Teach words that are critical to comprehension
Provide support during reading and writing
Develop a conceptual framework for themes, topics, and uni
ts of study
Assess students’ understanding of words and concepts.
It is wise to listen to Ellin Keene again before studying the succeeding pages. She
reminds teachers that,
We have long understood the need for vocabulary instruction that creates
conceptual base for new words, helps children build a personal set of associations
for the words they know, and encourages students to use increasingly subtle and
complex words in their spoken and written language. Sadly, there is still
focus in American classrooms on handing out long weekly word lists, then asking
children to look up their meanings and write sentences that use the words in an
To counteract this negative focus, Keene describes a lively snapshot of teachers who
continually gift their students with the joy of words:
They pause during a read
aloud to marvel at an author’s word choice; they reread lines
just to let
children appreciate the cadence of the language; they interrupt everyone during
composing to share the word one writer has chosen because it perfectly captures the meaning
he strives for. There are words and quotes posted throughout their cla
ssrooms, pulled from
children’s writing and well
loved books. They share their pleasure when the words the author
uses surprise them. They wisely select a few very relevant words to study at a given time,
helping children to build a
conceptual (rather than a definitional) understanding of each
word, associating other terms with it. They create situations in which kids discover and teach
each other words, and they ensure that children are hearing
an ever more
sophisticated vocabulary as they speak and write.”
also is a valuable guide to understanding the power of
words. It is our hope that teachers will discover new ways to enrich their students by unlocking
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TEACHING VOCABULARY
Words, Words, Words
by Janet Allen
The variety of instructional
Opportunities for learning new
words through wide reading
Strategies to learn unfamiliar words
Building of background knowledge
to increase vocabulary
y of words and
Awareness that context clues vary in
degree of helpfulness to readers
Awareness that knowing a word
means more than knowing a
definition of a word
Exposure to words in meaningful
Immersion in vocabulary discussion
Teaching of word parts
Looking up definitions as a single source
of word knowledge
Asking students t
o write sentences for
new words before they’ve studied the
word in depth
Notion that all words in a text need to be
defined for comprehension
Using context as a highly reliable tool
for increasing comprehension
Assessments that ask students for single
Instructional Strategies and Tools
Within the following pages you will find Word Study tools designed to develop word
consciousness in students. The instructional strategies and tools are not an end
all but a
r use. The expectation is that you will take them and use them in a manner that will
long word study skills.
The FRAYER MODEL
This graphic organizer takes some time, so you would probably choose it when you are
introducing a concept or be
ginning a unit. The teacher would directly teach the critical attributes.
This could become an anchor chart and used as a reference throughout the unit, adding
information as the learning progresses.
In the example that follows, the teacher is introducin
g the word “anarchist” preceding a
unit on the 1920’s.
Define the Concept
Is different from similar concepts
An anarchist is someone who
Someone who criticizes authority
advocates (supports or defends)
or government, but wouldn’t want
the absence of political authority
to destroy it.
Examples of the Concept are
Nonexamples of the concept are
Sacco and Vanzetti
A senator or representative
Some rock groups like
Anyone who votes or runs
The Dead Kennedys
I’ll remember the word by
I know that “
ist” refers to a person, like a “dentist” or “pharmacist”.
“ means without and “
arkos” means ruler.
In comic books th
ere sometimes is an “arch” villain. An anarchist would maybe not care if
others got hurt if they got in the way of the overthrow of authority.
CONCEPTS AND VOCABULARY: CATEGORIES AND LABELS
This activity helps students focus on the particular vocabulary for a unit or novel by
asking them to see connections, patterns, and relationships between the words. They decide how
to categorize the words into logical groups.
One of the best ways to use
this strategy is to have the words on cards and allow the
students to work in groups. As they arrange the cards, they will explain, argue, persuade, and
teach themselves and each other a great deal. This involvement with the words will help them
structure to remember the words.
This procedure is a good way to introduce a unit or to review at the end. The following
chart can be used instead of, or along with, the cards. Once a group has their organizational
pattern completed, they can present the
ir rationale to the whole class. Many different possibilities
provide further awareness of how the words relate to each other and to the topic itself. If this is
an introduction, students can create questions about the possible use of the words.
le that follows could be used by a teacher introducing or reviewing a unit on
the Civil Rights Movement. Multiple categories are possible.
Concepts and Vocabularies
Categories and Labels
Read and think about each of the words you have been given. Now, g
roup the words into
categories that make logical sense to you. Ask yourself which words would logically go together.
After you group the words, give each list a label. Be ready to explain or justify the rationale
behind your groups and labels.
Labels and Categories:
Events That Brought About Change
Lunch Counter sit
Separate But Equal Rosa Parks
George Wallace Little Rock Nine
Brown V. Board of Education
Jim Crow laws
March to Selma
Four Little Girls
h counter sit
ins Bus boycott Langston Hughes
Martin Luther King, Jr. Emmett Till Ruby Bridges
. Board o
March to Selma
Separate But Equal Little Rock Nine 4 Little Girls
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䝥潲来⁗a汬a捥† †††††† ††††††
BASED VOCABULARY INSTRUCTION
The three steps in this
specialized or academic vocabulary related to the topic
Provide students with an
where they would use the
specialized words highlighted
the topic using the specialized vocabulary
be a good way to introduce students to the intricate vocabulary of
. The teacher would first go over the specialized
words; then provide an activity that generates involvement with the words; and then,
discussion, create even more interaction with the new vocabulary.
is planned to introduce the Queen Mab speech in
Romeo and Juliet
to students before they see the film clip of that scene.
BASED VOCABULARY IN
L = Listing
EA = Experience Activity D = Discussion
Anon dreams atomies suit fathoms
Work with members of your learning group and discuss
what you know about Mercutio and
Romeo so far. How many of these words can you figure out? Has any one seen a pirate movie?
Which would fit swashbucklers? Mercutio is not a pirate, but he uses some crazy images to
distract Romeo from his latest crush (
Juliet!) See if you can figure out any of these words
before we watch the film clip.
After viewing the famous Queen Mab scene,
how many of these words can your team figure out
now? Anyone know anything about dream interpretation? Do you belie
ve Mercutio? Does
Mercutio believe himself? Could you draw this fairy midwife?
In this strategy, students are given a list of words for a story they are about to read. They
then make predictions about where these words will be used within the structure of the story.
Working in groups, they speculate about the elements of the story an
d make connections
between and among the words in the word bank. Any words that don’t seem to fit anywhere can
be placed in the Mystery Words box.
In the following example, the students are preparing to read
The Scarlet Letter
Use the vocabulary words in the word bank to make predictions about the book we are reading. You can use the words more than
once to make
your predictions. Think about how you think the author of the book will use the words in the story. Help each oth
er define the words. If you use a
dictionary, you may have to do some interpretation.
List words that you think will go with each categ
ory of the story structure. T
hen use those words to make predictions and answer the
questions about the structure.
If there are words your group can’t use because they are too unfamiliar, list those words at the bottom as Mystery
How will the author describe
It will be dank and blighted…It’s primeval.
What predictions can you
There’s a hussy and she’s probably melancholy. There’s an
make about the characters?
Illegitimate child. A parishioner might be involved.
What will the conflict be?
We think the paternity suit is the
Who will be involved?
The hussy! A crowd (throng). Something’s amiss.
What will happen in the story?
Some calamity will take place. Is there a portal to another
world? Maybe that’s where the imp comes in…and the beadle.
will the story end?
Someone might get hanged in the gallows. Someone
Who is depraved gets retribution!
What questions do you have
Is there time travel? (oracles?) Are there ghosts? (spectre)?
about the story?
Dead bodies? (sepulchers)?
physiognomies..that’s a mouthful!
PORTABLE WORD WALL
This strategy needs little explanation. Use it with any subject at any time. Students can
they want to know or that the teacher wants them to record during a unit.
This is an activity where students are asked to sort words into categories by placing
words into groups where the words have a common element. The teacher creates a bank
that will be used in a unit of study.
The data collected can be a valuable springboard for conferring with students about their
choices for grouping and their thinking for their decisions.
ord Sort (7
catch, match, hutch
reach, teach, beach
catch, match, hutch
beach, reach, teach
Word endings (
match, catch, hutch
beach, coach, reach, teach
belch, couch, hunch
ABC order and sounding
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
This helpful tool allows students to interact with the vocabulary to gain a better grasp of the meaning in a
text. It could be used before reading and annotating. In this approach, students are required to determine which word
would not survive with the ot
hers in a given list. The teacher formulates word clusters containing at least one word
from the work (synonyms and one antonym). Working in small groups, students discuss which words would be
eliminated and why.
Dictionaries and thesauri can be used. Th
e teacher may require students to formulate a new word to replace
the eliminated one. A last step could be to have the students decide as a group how they might label the clusters.
Survival of the Fittest
Read and discuss the words in each of the cluster
s of words. Determine which word does not fit with the other words
in each cluster. Eliminate that word and then create a label that would include the words that are left in the cluster of
words. For a challenge, generate a new word that would replace the
eliminated word and fit with the remaining
words in the cluster.
“Casey at the Bat”
This brainstorming and categorizing activity provides students with an opportunity to
think about, discuss, categorize, and label words related to a central
concept. This allows
teachers to assess students’ background knowledge prior to beginning a novel or unit of study.
: Each student brainstorms and lists at least seven words they think of when they hear certain
terms relating to a theme.
nts then work with a small group to discuss and group their lists into logical
categories. Looking for word patterns allows students time to think about the concept. The goal
is to have one list encompassing all words, and for all students to achieve a bet
ter grasp of the
: The last step requires students to label their categories. These categories could then
become a basis for the creation of a word wall.
My brainstorming list for
putting up with people
Word patterns our group discovered…
Based on our words and labels, we can make the following statements
about this topic:
Tolerance is ignoring differences among people
You have to accept and be
willing to be tolerant
Tolerance is putting up with people
“I’M THINKING OF A WORD….”
Need to review vocabulary, terms, events, characters? This charades
engaging enough to sustain the interest of the students and “solidify their
understanding of specialized vocabulary words (Allen, 2007). The teacher chooses words,
concepts, and terms taught during a unit or from the Word Wall. It is an excellent format
assessment; the teacher can quickly identify student needs to determine future lessons.
Janet Allen gives the following explanation:
begins when the teacher says, “I’m thinking of a word….”
thought by providi
udents with a context, such as “
I’m thinking of a
word that we discussed in our
study of colonial events in America
.” Or “
I’m thinking of
a term authors use to….” Or “
I’m thinking of a
word that we often use in math class
The teacher allows
a few wild guesses and then moves forward by giving students
and continuing to repeat each previous clue (following the
graphic organizer). At this
point, students will probably have several guesses. If they
have guessed the
word and can explain or
describe the word’s meaning in the context the teacher has created, then the teacher moves on to a new
word and begins the game again.
After a few example
example clues are given, the teacher would provide a richer,
detailed context by saying, “
This word would always/usually…
.” and “
word would never…
By this time, the students will have narrowed the possibilities and
should be ab
le to name and define the
“I’M THINKING OF A WORD….”
of a word (device) that…
…playwrights use to reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings.
Examples of the device are…
examples of the device are…
Mercutio’s speech in Act 1.5
…Romeo and the party
conversation at the end of Act 1
This device would always/usually….
The device would never….
…be spoken to characters on stage
…be one or two lines long
The word is
and it means…
monologue: a long speech delivered by an actor to others on stage
I SPY: A WORD SCAVENGER HUNT
This is an engaging activity designed to “provide students an opportunity to apply and
discover…” vocabulary, terms, concepts in a more “real
life context.” This activity is based on
the belief that middle and high school students should have “deeper expl
orations with language’”
(Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002). “I Spy” provides the multiple exposures needed to shape
word meanings to increase student understanding and the ability to actually use the word
Have you every played “I
Spy”? Then you
know basically how “I Spy: A Word
Scavenger Hunt” works. Students are given a list of words or concepts and must find examples
of the word somewhere. In the example provided, students chose unfamiliar words from
and formed a Word Wall.
At the end of the novel, students generated a list of their
10 favorite words and went on a scavenger hunt. For one week they actively sought these words
in their reading (academic and leisure) and listening (conversations and television).
by Janet Allen:
Create a list of words or concepts that are specific to the text or unit of study.
Give students the list of words and explain that they are looking for
examples of the word and the actual word. It is a
bonus if they find
the actual word, but you really want to discover the word in action.
Generate a list of vocabulary or, as in the example provided, have
students generate a list of words and hunt for the word in action.
Students work in groups and as a
class, documenting where they discovered
If possible, students bring an artifact to show the word in a new context
(When studying Franz Kafka, students found and shared
examples). The artifacts could be anything from newspaper clippi
photographs to television or online videos.
Individually, students write what connection the target word in a new context
has to their understanding of the word or concept.
If you have a word wall, artifacts can be displayed under each of the target
words as a visual reminder of the word, its meanings, and its applications.
Examples from students’ work with
Heart of Darkness
were “tumultuous, fisticuffs,
lugubrious, jocose, diaphanous, sagacious, obsequious, harlequin.”
This activity is
engaging for students and teachers. Here they go beyond memorization
and discover the words and concepts that often seem inaccessible are accessible. The words and
concepts are “brought to life” and, in turn, fluency is increased.
PREVIEWING CONTENT VOCABULARY
What does it mean to know a word?
by Janet Allen lists these “Levels of
I’ve never seen the word before.
I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.
I recognize it in
context and know that it is connected/related to _________(word or
I know the word and can use it appropriately.
“Previewing Content Vocabulary” is a way for teachers and students to assess students’
background knowledge of the words and conce
pts encountered in a specific reading assignment
or unit of study.
Instructions modified from
Using the graphic organizer for Previewing Content Vocabulary or a format similar
(student journal or notebook page), guide students through this
Read the title of the chapter, text, or name of the author and ask them to brainstorm or
freewrite words and/or concepts they think they will encounter during the reading.
In the example, students were preparing to read an article on the histor
y and myth of
the Trojan War. After freewriting on the words and concepts they may encounter,
they were given the word list at the bottom of the page (Content Vocabulary). These
words were taken from the reading.
Before reading, students individually deter
mined their level of knowledge of each of
the words, filling out each quadrant of the organizer.
Students then worked in groups to share their knowledge of the words and define
Another use for this activity is similar to a pretest (but
less intimidating). For example,
write “Literary Terms” as the title and have them brainstorm a list of all the terms they know and
can define. Then provide the list you want them to know by the end of the study, semester, or
year and complete the organize
r as explained above.
This strategy allows the teacher to determine not only students’ various levels of word
knowledge, but also their general background knowledge. It is a valuable formative assessment
for how much pre
teaching might be needed. Marzano
reminds us, “What students already know
about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information
relative to the content.”
Previewing Content Vocabulary
Chapter XII: “History and Myth Come Together: The
Based on the title, words I would expect to read in this text:
Based on this title, I believe that it will be about the Trojan War, so words like “war.” They
may talk about rulers and the importance of the Trojan War.
heard the word…
I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know
what it means:
I think the word means
I know the word…
or is related to…
Over and over in
Keene urges us to “incorporate the most basic
instructional principles: Focus instruction on a few key concepts, teach them over a long period
of time, and have students apply those concepts in a wide variety of texts and contexts.”
rs genuinely want to bring students and words together, they must commit to this
mantra and especially commit to the transfer of new understanding to the next experience.
Carol Ann Tomlinson, in the Foreword to Sandra R. Whitaker’s
the feelings of teachers who love words: “It never made sense to me to ask students to memorize
lists of words. That would have been like asking them to memorize the phone book instead of
learning about the people in the town.”
Whitaker guides us
further with a caution to
“thinking that every word students will
need to understand a text actually appears in the text.” Instead,
“thinking about the
background knowledge students…need as they encounter a text.” Create a “productive
the words we produce to communicate our own ideas….Without transfer of new
vocabulary into speech and writing, can we really say a student owns words?”
The examples from Janet Allen’s
offered in the preceding pages were
of their supportive scaffolding. Properly assisted, students can develop their
productive vocabularies and build their background knowledge about words.
Tomlinson commends those who forego “the inclination to provide teachers with a ‘bag
of tricks’ tha
t is rooted in nothing more than the desire to have something to do Monday
morning.” It is the hope of the builders of the Word Study portion of this literacy notebook that
these exercises will not be perceived as contents of that bag.
We agree with Tomli
nson that, “[U]nderstandable as that desire [to provide the tricks] is,
it doesn’t help us grow deep roots in the disciplines we teach.” We offer these examples with this
caveat: Plant them in good soil that has been carefully prepared, or there won’t be t
he growth we
hope to see.
May your students and you go beyond the names and definitions of words to know the
excitement of truly owning words; they have as many stories as the people in a town.
Allen, J. (1999).
Words, words, words:
Teaching vocabulary in grades 4
Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Allen, J. (2007).
Inside words: Tools for teaching academic vocabulary.
Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002).
Bringing words to life:
NY: Guilford Press.
Johnston, P. (2004).
How our language affects children’s learning.
Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Keene, E. (2008).
To Understand: New Horizons in Reading Comprehension
. Portsmouth, NH:
Marzano, R. (2003).
What works in schools:
Translating research into action.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Marzano, R. (2004).
uilding background knowledge for academic
Research on what works i
. Alexandria, VA: Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Whitaker, S. (2008).
Building vocabulary across texts and disciplines
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.