Vote 1 for Vocabulary Action!



‘The teaching of vocabulary is one of the most neglected areas in teaching.’ – Paul Dufficy

This week a group of 12 teachers from 5 different schools began a small, ‘action for vocabulary development’ project with Paul Dufficy (@CHEAPedagogy) and Cindy Valdez-Adams (@TESOLoz). We will be putting theory into practice next term with Paul and Cindy as our mentors and guides. Stay tuned for our progress as Lina Taweil and I implement our learning with Lina’s Stage 2/3 class of students of diverse backgrounds and abilities in south west Sydney.

Here is a very brief summary of what Paul taught us …

Vocabulary needs to be taught:

  • explicitly
  • implicitly (wide reading & conversations)
  • using multimodal methods
  • with regular exposure
  • through making connections

The teaching of vocabulary needs to be embedded in classroom learning. We need to raise the words to the consciousness of the students in all classes  and we need to teach vocabulary mindfully!

The number of words that a child knows when they come to school correlates closely with their socioeconomic status. It is not only the case for those of non-English speaking background.

EAL/D students may come to school with only 5 000 words in their first language and very few if any in English.

If students come to school with a vocabulary deficit they can fall further and further behind. They are in competition with students who have a greater vocabulary, and therefore greater comprehension. These vocabulary rich students are likely to read more which in turn leads to an even greater vocabulary and an ever widening gap between the two types of students.

A less motivated reader may only have a vocabulary of 100 000 words, the average reader has about 1 000 000 words in their vocabulary and the highly motivated reader has 10 – 50 million words.

The vocabulary in our curriculum is not found in everyday conversations. We will not acquire vocabulary without mindful conversations. As school goes on the vocabulary demand increases enormously and our vocabulary poor students fall further and further behind.

Where do we teach vocabulary?

  • In substantive conversations
  • Using interactional scaffolding – thinking points, big questions, philosophical issues

We don’t want narrow questions and to avoid this we need slow teaching.

– Before we engage with a text (frontloading)

– While we engage with the text (glossing)

– After we engage with the text (focusing and recycling)

When? Daily!!

Teaching vocabulary should be a daily focus.

– Every learning sequence

– At set times (first thing/ last thing/ transitions)

– In the playground (give the children word play – push their ideas)

– In the home (get them to ask their parents questions and engage with parents or grandparents)

– At assembly

– On excursions

– On a classroom blog


We need to remember the importance of vocabulary. Language is the major tool for thinking.

We need to adopt the philosophy – “I want the children to be better thinkers than I am.” And, “I want to challenge children’s minds by asking the right questions”

As teachers we need to:

  1. Hand over – give the students the raw materials in a way that allows them to grapple and puzzle with language.
  2. Engage students – the teacher needs to be passionate and curious about language and allow this passion to be seen and experienced by the students.
  3. Assist the children’s performance with thinking, grappling and being engaged.


Start by finding out how well they know the words. This can be revisited during and after the learning process.

Levels of word knowledge

Have never heard or seen the word before Have seen and/or heard but not sure what it means Have seen and/or heard and have a feel for the meaning I know what it means and where it’s used but don’t use it myself I know what it means and I use it I know what it means, I use it can explain its meaning, and know its etymology


Working with words

Look at:

– literal/ common meaning

– connotations associated with words. (e.g how used in school/ home/ by different people)

– polysemy (Same words different meanings)

– morphological options (change according to tense/ number which can be erratic)

– collocations (do they work together – eg. a comfortable friend? No – a like-minded friend)

– spelling and pronunciation

– context – when to use a word and when not to.

– synonyms/antonyms/ etymology.


Vocabulary can be classified into three tiers:

Tier 1 words – These encompass everyday, run of the mill playground language.

Tier 3 words– low frequency words that are rarely used which are usually specific to one domain e.g. science, medicine, computers. These words can be learnt at the same rate by all learners because when they are introduced they are new to all – English speakers and EAL/D students alike.

Tier 2 words – which are the ones that give our vocabulary poor students the most trouble. They are higher frequency words that are used and found across many domains. They characterize written text and it is imperative that we take time each day to teach them richly, deeply and meaningfully!

The majority of them have a Latin or Greek etymology.

Our criteria for teaching them should be:

– Are they frequently used?

– Can they be worked with?

If the answer is yes, then we must explicitly teach them.

As a teacher we should keep a record of these words as the students come across them in their reading and learning. We need to build up a weekly word wall and keep changing it as the words change.

We can find synonyms for them and build clines for their strength or richness e.g. whispered, murmured, spoke, cried, shouted, shrieked.

If looking for a particular word in a cloze passage we can play a game – Centre circle is wanted word, others are similar words. Students try to guess the word.

Synonym Cloze passages are great for teaching tier 2 words because they help to extend the vocabulary and to understand the meanings and strengths of the words well enough to choose the best word.

See PETAA publication by Paul Dufficy Cloze Encounters

and Paul’s book, Designing Learning for Diverse Classrooms which explains his rationale and gives ideas for independent activities  imgres-1

There’s no argument here … vocabulary must be explicitly taught if our teaching is to have an impact on our students’ academic outcomes. We have to work to assist our students over this lexical bar in order for them to achieve academic success.





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