By Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
There are a number of instructional components required for students to really learn words. It’s not simply a matter of assigning words, having students define those words, and then testing them on the words. Rather, the evidence suggests that students need explicit instruction in word meanings, repeated exposure to words, opportunities for wide reading, and experiences using the words in the presence of their peers (e.g., Fisher, Blachowicz, & Watts-Taffe, 2011; Graves, 2006).
One of the most difficult aspects of quality vocabulary instruction is deciding which words are worthy of being taught. There are clearly defined categories for words, which have become part of the lexicon for vocabulary researchers and teachers. We are all familiar with Tier 1 or general words, Tier 2 or specialized words, and Tier 3 or technical words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Vacca & Vacca, 2007). These categories have guided teachers in the selection of words and facilitated an understanding of the value in learning different kinds of words.
While these categorical systems are helpful, they don’t provide teachers with concrete information about selecting words to teach. To address this, we have attempted to create a series of questions that teachers can ask to determine which words are worthy of being taught. We drew on several well-known vocabulary researchers, including Graves (2006), Hiebert and Kamil (2005), and Nagy (1988) to name the six categories useful in identify which words to teach. Figure 1 contains our questions, organized in six categories: Representative, Repeatable, Transportable, Contextual analysis, Structural analysis, and Cognitive load.
Considerations for Selecting Vocabulary Words
|Topic||Questions to Ask|
Figure 1. Considerations for Selecting Vocabulary Words (Fisher & Fry, 2008)
In our teaching, we have found these categories and questions useful. For example, during a recent unit on disability as part of our integrated health curriculum, we used this system to analyze a primary source document that students were going to read in class as part of their Internet Reciprocal Teaching task. From the article about Phenylketonuria (PKU), we selected condition, inherited, gene, enzyme,recessive, and treatable, based on our knowledge of our students and their existing word knowledge. In doing so, we were able to ensure that students understood these key terms, and thus the information about this disability.
Once the words have been selected, instruction begins. There are a host of great ideas about teaching vocabulary on this blog and in a number of other published resources. To our thinking, these are less helpful if we are not clear about which words need to be taught. Having said that, even selecting words worthy of being taught will be useless if we revert to the “assign, define, test” approach to building students’ knowledge.
In sum, selecting words should be foundational in explicit vocabulary instruction, and there should be instruction!
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bring words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.
Fisher, P. J., Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Watts-Taffe, S. (2011). Vocabulary instruction: Three contemporary issues. In D. Lapp & D. Fisher (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (3rd ed.) (pp. 252-257). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Word wise and content rich: Five essential steps to teaching academic vocabulary. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Graves, M. F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning & instruction. New York: Teachers College.
Hiebert, E. H., & Kamil, M. L. (Eds.). (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Nagy, W. E. (1988). Teaching vocabulary to improve reading comprehension. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Vacca, R. T., & Vacca, J. A. (2007). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
About Fisher and Frey
This article is courtesy of Drs. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Doug and Nancy are professors at San Diego State University and nationally known for their work with vocabulary and comprehension instruction. They are the co-authors of several professional books for educators, including Word Wise and Content Rich: Five Essential Steps to Teaching Academic Vocabulary. Key ideas from their book are discussed in this article.