The Research before the Action – Part 1


This Action for Vocabulary Development  project under the guidance of Paul Dufficy and Cindy Valdez Adams, is causing me, a naturally impulsive, excitable person to slow down and think before rushing into action. We have had our Professional Learning Day which was summarised in Vote 1 for Vocabulary Action! and now we have research to read before we make any further decisions.

Last week four readings were distributed to us which started our thinking  about the importance of explicitly teaching vocabulary, and then today, Paul sent a few more … well eleven, actually.  I guess, if we are to do justice to this project and learn something from it we do need to be informed and read the research.

The plan of attack for this post will be this … If the reading can be found on the net it will be linked here, otherwise there will be a link to where it can be accessed. Then, there will be an attempt to give a brief summary of what the article is saying, highlighting the sections that may be relevant to the needs of the class with whom Lina Taweil and I will be taking action. Hopefully this will help to guide our thinking and practices and be of benefit to anyone else interested in this sort of project.

Making Time for Vocabulary One Two Three – Wendy Moore   

This article stresses the importance of actively and explicitly teaching word meanings because vocabulary development has largely been left to incidental learning and chance. Those who enjoy reading are at an advantage because they are exposed to sophisticated literate language. But because reading comprehension is dependent on vocabulary knowledge, those who experience reading difficulties are not being exposed to these words independently and are falling behind in vocabulary acquisition. 

Wendy Moore says that teachers should use literature to expose them to sophisticated language that is needed for reading comprehension as they will not find this in general conversation. Reading linguistically rich texts aloud to children for at least twenty minutes a day exposes all of them to rich vocabulary. Challenging words can be explicitly taught as they are encountered and then opportunities can be taken during lessons to reinforce these words. 

Two methods are described; the brief method, based on the work of Biemiller (2006) and the robust method, described by Beck, Mckeown and Kucan (2007). 

The brief method involves:

  • pausing when reading to define a target word’s meaning and then applying that meaning to the context in the text. This boosts comprehension and heightens awareness of the word in subsequent encounters. 
  • Six new words a day are suggested as being manageable using this method.
  • Brief weekly quiz challenges are used to keep the words fresh in students’ minds. 

The robust method involves: 

  • Multiple encounters with five or six words over four or five days. 
  • Appropriate tier 2 words are chosen from stories or chapters that have already been read aloud to the students. 
  • Words should be chosen that have complex or subtle meanings and are likely to be found in future reading. 
  • These selected words need to be described in language the students understand, used in different contexts, thought about in relation to appropriate and inappropriate usage and practised through drama, synonym games and finding opportunities to include them in conversation and writing. 

Part of the explicit and systematic instruction includes deliberately revisiting words in a range of contexts. This can be done by;

  • Teachers deliberately looking for opportunities to use sophisticated language with their students in conversations and lessons.
  • Displaying the focus words and using them as prompts. Praising attempts to use them.
  • Linking vocabulary programs to word study lessons, investigating spelling patterns with etymology and investigating how words change when used as a noun, verb, adjective or adverb. 

In our project we will aim to incorporate most of these strategies. To differentiate for the wide diversity of our class we will probably have fewer focus words for some students than others. A simple pre-test could determine which focus words different students will have. 

Diving into Everyday Texts: Comprehension to Production – Jennifer Miller 

Jenny Miller’s article was a pleasant and informative read from her humorous introduction; I have long been a sufferer of Compulsive Pedagogical Resource Disorder (CPRD). I read newspapers daily, keeping a wary eye out for ‘the teachable text’, through to the commonsensical advice; If texts are to be used as effective learning tools in the classroom, they need to be chosen so that content connects with the interests and experiences of the students, and they need to be at an appropriate level of difficulty which is in line with the students’ reading competencies’, and finally, finishing with these words of wisdom; It is just a matter of finding the intriguing article, of analysing it to identify the comprehension possibilities and the potential hurdles, and of creating the learning activities….The activities suggested should be a useful reminder that understanding is critical to success in reading and writing, and that opportunity to practise is essential. 

First Miller addressed the ‘why look out for the teachable text?’, which is, that many of our students have difficulty with the literacy practices and texts that they are expected to read in class because they haven’t acquired the literacy competencies needed. This might be because they are English language learners or the struggling readers of the class.

She also highlighted the fact that students need to have access to the vocabulary before comprehensible input  happens. They need explicit teaching to understand text models and time to practise the grammar and language through repetition and recycling. Vocabulary and grammatical knowledge are acquired through focusing on the form, meaning and practical application of vocabulary.

Miller then outlined the phases of the developmental teaching cycle based on Cummins (2000) as a way of developing literacy. She emphasised that English language learners or those students with reading difficulties would need extra time and assistance to decode and comprehend words and their meanings. 

Figure 1. Phases - The Developmental Teaching Cycle (Based on Cummins 2000)

(Nation 2001, and Westwood 2003) are cited as saying that, For students to read a text with relative independence, but with some help from the teacher, they need to identify at least 90-95% of the vocabulary.  For this reason Miller suggests that teachers adapt texts to some extent for the students to work with, but show them the original so that they have an idea of the context. 

The following tables show Miller’s criteria for selecting a text and her ‘Four Steps into Text’. The rest of the article shows some examples of these. Right throughout, she encourages student autonomy and choice to enhance interest and engagement as well as to give them opportunities to demonstrate their learning and understanding. 

Table 1. Criteria for choosing the newspaper text (Miller 2007)

Table 2 Comprehension in Focus (Miller 2007)

If we are to use articles for our project; and there are some that could be used from sources like ABC’s Gardening Australia, we need to read them carefully with our students’ differing reading capabilities in mind. 

Predisposition to choose: the language of an information gap task in a multilingual primary classroom – Paul Dufficy  

Paul Dufficy’s paper begins with the proposition that children, whilst learning English as an additional language or dialect in Australian mainstream primary classrooms, have the extra challenge of learning the content of the Primary curriculum through using the English language.  The communicative task described and analysed was a content-based information gap task, based on a crossword design, which was purposed to predispose the students to use specific language that could be used in their writing of information reports. The focus was on the language choices made by the students during the task.

The conclusion was that this task consistently predisposed students to use particular patterns of language. It was suggested that, if particular tasks produced certain types of language, an inventory might be kept by teachers of the types of language they wished to teach and which tasks were most likely to meet these needs. This task was part of a larger action research project which had the purpose of expanding talk opportunities in multilingual classrooms. 

The usefulness of this paper for our small action for vocabulary development is that it makes us aware of the need to know the type of language required for the written tasks that our students are to undertake. This means that we will have to think carefully about the text requirements and analyse the pedagogic tasks we design with the specific language requirements in mind. Paul Dufficy cites Bygate (1999:34) as saying that different tasks help to ‘develop different linguistic muscles’ with some tasks being syntactic, others lexical and still others focusing more on verbs or nouns. The skill we, the teachers undertaking this project, need to learn will be to analyse the interactions within the tasks and to ascertain whether our students are making the language choices we anticipate they will make. 

Definition of a Pedagogoc Task by Ellis (2003)

‘Becoming’ in  classroom talk – Paul Dufficy 

This paper is essentially about how much teacher talk is done in the classroom, and the possibilities and opportunities engineered into classroom learning for student input, interactions and conversations. Dufficy asserts that when talk is characterised by tight teacher control and relatively narrow and predictable patterns of participation that there is little opportunity for children to develop both linguistically and cognitively … particularly for our English language learners. Dufficy also worries that in these classrooms with restrictive communication students learn, at least initially, values of  compliance, cognitive passivity, and uncritical acceptance of the views of others. He would prefer that through more open forms of dialogue and communication in the classroom that our students learnt not only values of critical independent thinking, but deeper values to do with respect for others’ viewpoints, courage to put forward an unusual idea, trust in getting a fair hearing, and resilience as they come to see uncertainty and mistakes in thinking as the very building blocks of thought itself. 

In the introduction, Dufficy outlines the needs of English language learners in our Australian primary classrooms:

  • The dual challenge of learning the English language whilst using this language to learn the subject matter of the curriculum.
  • Coming to grips with the expected behaviour, social and linguistic, of an Australian classroom. 
  • Working out where they fit in the social structure of the school community – finding their new voice, their new ‘self’, and experiencing a silent period as they take in their new world.

Dufficy has entitled his article ‘Becoming’ in classroom talk and he refers to J. Lave (1996) Mind, Culture, and Activity pp.149-164  who asks, what kinds of people or ‘selves’ are ‘becoming’ in our classrooms?  When we think about our classrooms in this way we realise the joint responsibility all parties have with regard to the learning environment we are part of. Teachers have an active role in deciding the approaches they take and what they are putting forward to be learnt but the students also, need to be listened to and have an input into their learning. For ideas to unfold, skills to develop and students to ‘become’ themselves there need to be inclusive discussions in classrooms. This can be extremely challenging in our diverse multilingual learning environments.

The article outlines the difficulties faced by teachers of multilingual classrooms to carry out ‘talk’ for learning:

  • The need to integrate language exploration and development, as well as bilingualism, with meeting the requirements of the syllabus outcomes. 
  • Helping English language learners contribute to the learning endeavours so that are engaged, productive and feel valued. 
  • Making sure that the way talk happens between the teacher and groups of children helps to give the students a voice. 

Apparently, the way that we as teachers often use the teacher question/student response/ teacher response (often evaluative) IRE/F, is one of the causes for students becoming disengaged. The continual questioning, tests knowledge and requires children to guess what the teacher thinks. Student questioning is virtually eliminated and there is no real dialogue happening. The curiosity that children bring to school in Kindergarten is squashed and they are often required ‘to leave their life situations at the door’ (Neiser 1976:137) which for bilingual children can be bewildering at best.’

Even though there have been initiatives to encourage teaching to be more interactive with substantive conversations it appears that the reverse has happened. The blame could be laid at the feet of the issue of time constraints in the classroom, and the demand of specified learning objectives. 

Where does the English language learner sit in all this? Dufficy says that we have moved on from the view that learning, rather than being a process of transmission and individual acquisition, is a situated practice (Lave and Wenger 1991) within a community of others. 

Looking at the extract from Dufficy’s article ‘Becoming’ in classroom talk below, emphasises the social nature of learning. We need to move out of the more constrained controlled, predictable, technique driven patterns of classroom talk to more open discourse where children feel they can take risks and teachers can actually have insight into language development and thinking, especially of our English language learners. If they are only copying those around them and learning responses they are not learning how to think and feel in English. 

'Becoming' in classroom talk

In the interactive snapshot of a Year 3/4 multilingual classroom, where there was an ‘action for change’ project, Dufficy focuses on the teacher-led small group talk where students had more practice to expand their dialogic experience. 

What Dufficy noted was:

  • that talking times before the reading of the content texts fed into the students’ ‘funds of knowledge’ and helped to preview the texts being read.
  • that student groups were not grouped according to ability but on the capabilities of the group to provide each other with enough assistance to meet the challenges of the tasks in the unit of work. e.g. a newly arrived EAL/D speaker was assigned to a group with a close friend who spoke the same language, Vietnamese. This was so he could participate in the talk,  even though not necessarily talking. 
  • the conversation he observed took part after the students had seen a related video. Prior to reading the text the conversation was a general conversation about the issues being raised which were then explored after reading a section of the chosen text.  The goal was a teacher-facilitated conversation, rather than a teacher-guided one around the big idea.
  • that when the students take part in the discussion they are taking risks. How they are reacted to during the talk will either embolden them and help them feel valued as a thinker or contributor or cause them to shut down and not contribute. 
  • the choice of casual talk – ‘yeah’ rather than ‘yes’ – helps to keep the situation informal and casual. Simultaneous contributions make it like everyday conversation.
  • the teacher supports the students’ contributions as much as possible so that they are encouraged to practise and gain confidence in themselves to discuss complex ideas. 
  • the students were encouraged in the small group to discuss their own experiences even though not directly related to the text which built trust between teacher and students. 
  • the student with minimal English can still understand some of what is being said and can be brought into the conversation by the teacher with assistance and scaffolding. 

There’s so much to take from this article. Lina and I will have to carefully plan how conversations take place with our students. We will have to think carefully about how to facilitate conversations without taking over so that the students are focusing on the big idea together in a way that engages them all. This will affect our choice of activities that involve the students in substantive conversations as well as which students will be grouped together so that all can and want to participate in the discussions. 

Cloze Encounters – Paul Dufficy  

This is a PETAA paper. Can I just say right up front that I love PETAA papers. They are well-written, easily accessible and extremely practical. As the ‘punny’ title suggests, this one is about cloze (closure) passages, which Dufficy tells us, were originally for the purpose of testing reading comprehension. In its original form it had a fairly strict form where every 6th or 7th word was omitted regardless of what part of speech they were and replaced by blanks of uniform length. No clues or mechanisms to assist were to be given apart  form the context of the surrounding words, as they were assessment tasks not teaching tools. 

The cloze passages that Dufficy describes in this paper have been designed for students to work collaboratively and have substantive conversations about the possible gaps. This will help to front load vocabulary and language needed for language tasks and to deepen the students’ understanding of the language they are expected to use in focus units through recycling  vocabulary and making decisions about grammar choices. 

Dufficy explains and explores the uses of the following variations of the cloze idea: 

  • reverse cloze – add words rather than delete them. Examples include choosing from; three tenses of the same verb, or a few prepositions, nouns or adjectives that make the most sense, or, content words like nouns verbs, adjectives or adverbs with the purpose of teaching vocabulary. The plan would be to have the students work together to choose the correct answer followed by the class coming back together to discuss their choices and their reasons for them. Subsequently showing the students the original text could then lead to further discussion about the author’s purpose and the intended meaning. 
  • cluster cloze – can be done as a whole class activity. Taking a passage from a text being used and leave out on or two words that are unlikely to be known by most of the class. It can be shown on the IWB. Read the text together saying something when the blank space appears then ask the students for suggestions as to what is likely to be in that space. These suggestions are then recorded in the outer circles of a word web. (see below) Don’t let the students guess the inner circle until all the outer circles are filled or they can think of no more synonyms. Teacher assistance can happen at the beginning with a word in one outer circle or at the end with a hangman-style game. The point here is that the new word now has found a home among other words and, like the verb forms in the reverse cloze, it has been ‘raised to consciousness’. Format for word web
  • synonym cloze – delete words that are new to most children (probably of Latin or Greek derivation) and insert a word that is more likely to be recognised by the students. Students can work in pairs and then come together to share answers. Etymology can be explored for these new words. 
  • read-around cloze – taking a short piece of text, choose the words to be deleted that have a clue before or after the deletion. Again students can first work in pairs and then share with the whole class. By having the prior conversations and reaching a conclusion the students are more confident to engage in whole-class discussions. Pairs of students might be able to design a read-around cloze for the whole class each week. 
  • not-needed cloze – this involves removing chunks of text, (clauses or phrases) that do not alter the whole meaning of the text. The removed chunks of text are randomly placed below the text. The text is numbered in the places where the not-needed pieces of text have been removed and the students are asked to match the text with the number. This would assist with teaching descriptive writing, to help the students realise that details help the reader to visualise what the author is communicating. 
  • prediction cloze – cloze can be useful as a pre-reading strategy where the teacher wants the students to focus on an aspect of vocabulary or grammar or when they would like to call attention to an issue raised in the text prior to reading. With partners, the students predict the words that are missing using the clues from the surrounding text. The blanks are numbered. The teacher collects all the predictions and then shows the students the original text so that they can compare their answers with it. Further discussions as to how changing the choices of words changed the author’s intended meaning will lead to substantive classroom talk about the meanings and usage of the chosen words. 

Cloze passages are engaging and versatile activities that can be designed by the teacher or the students to unpack and recycle academic language. We will be playing with these to develop our students’ knowledge and understanding of vocabulary involved in the Science unit we are planning. 

Chapter 10 Developing Vocabulary and Oral Language in Young Children, Guilford Publications, 2014. ProQuest – Silverman, Rebecca D., and Anna G. Meyer.

In this chapter, of a book that outlines various aspects of effective vocabulary instruction, there are two main questions being addressed;

How do teachers bring together all of the components of effective instruction to support vocabulary breadth and depth?

What does instruction to support vocabulary breadth and depth look like at different grade levels? 

The introduction goes through the facets of effective instruction for vocabulary. These are:

  • Explicit and extended instruction should be implemented in a language-rich environment, which fosters word awareness and development of word learning strategies.
  • Assessment should drive all instruction and, in particular, be used to differentiate instruction according to children’s various strengths and needs.
  • Using multimedia is a great way to reinforce word learning in a language- rich environment and to differentiate instruction through multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement.

  • Home–school connections, especially ones that are well matched with in-school instruction and that build bridges between the home and school contexts, provide additional reinforcement for word learning beyond the rather circumscribed school day.

The authors advocate vocabulary instruction as a school-wide priority involving all stakeholders. The most effective schools were found to be ones where:

  • vocabulary was a prioritised learning focus across the whole school.
  • co-operative planning time was allocated for teachers to integrate vocabulary instruction across the curriculum. (I think that they would need expert assistance with this initially. It would vary for each Stage group) 
  • reflective evaluation was encouraged to improve vocabulary instruction across the entire literacy program of the school. 

[Several other school wide initiatives were suggested that would not pertain to a K-6 school in SW Sydney NSW.]

The ideas that we could take from this chapter for classroom teachers and their support staff are:

  • When teachers focus on the same themes and teach the same words, they can share responsibility for lesson planning and effective vocabulary instruction.
  • Classroom teachers and teacher specialists, who bring different skill sets to these conversations, can ensure that their ideas for how to differentiate for different learners and how to integrate vocabulary across the curriculum inform instruction.

  •  Including teacher specialists in grade-level planning for vocabulary instruction enables them to align their instruction with particular students with the grade level curriculum.

    The chapter goes on to describe ways of co-teaching to improve vocabulary  instruction: 

    • The One Teaching and One Supporting Model—One teacher provides instruction while the other teacher circulates to keep students on task.

    • The Station or Center Teaching Model—Each teacher focuses his or her attention on one or two centers while students rotate through all of the centers in small groups.

    • The Parallel Teaching Model—Each teacher works with half the class on the same concepts and then groups share what they learned.

    • The Alternative Teaching Model—One teacher guides the class in extension activities while the other teacher provides additional support to students who need it.

    • The Team Teaching Model—Both teachers work simultaneously to trade off roles in the lesson. Teachers can model how students can work together in pairs and small groups.

     The rest of the chapter shows the way these ideas were implemented in four different classes ranging from pre-school to Grade 2.  The emphasis by these authors, Rebecca Silverman and Anna Meyer on explicit vocabulary instruction is because children who have limited vocabulary and academic language skills will be at an academic disadvantage. Luckily, effective instruction in the early grades can accelerate children’s vocabulary learning and prepare children to understand and use academic language throughout their school careers. 

Essential, enjoyable and effective: The what, why and how of powerful vocabulary instruction  – Judith A. Scott | University of California, Santa Cruz

ABSTRACT This article provides an overview of effective vocabulary strategies that can be integrated into everyday practice. Results from the Vocabulary Innovations in Education (VINE) study inform guidelines that can help teachers adopt a new stance toward word learning. Building on the ideas of apprenticeship and discussion, this approach helps students and teachers actively, explicitly and thoroughly explore opportunities to see, hear and use new words. Using this metacognitive, metalinguistic and affective approach was highly successful, particularly for English learners.

Introduction  ‘I learn more words and I realised it’s fun to learn words so I look closer to finding more words.’ (Nora, a 10-year-old English learner in the VINE project) This was Nora’s response after three years of being part of the VINE research project where she had learnt words through games, targeted literacy lessons and substantive conversations. This article was written to help teachers to help their students become as word conscious as Norah. It talks about how to help students learn the words and language used in academic settings, the evidence for its effectiveness from research and ideas to integrate this learning into the classroom. The subheadings below are those from the article. 

Understanding vocabulary learning  – The purpose of a strong vocabulary program is to provide students with a solid foundation for participating fully in their school experiences.

Scott emphasises the importance of word knowledge for communicating meaning, especially in writing, where accuracy is needed because the author and reader are separated by distance and time.  She goes on to speak about the slipperiness of words – how they change their meaning according to the words around them e.g.  A round  of golf, singing in a roundrounding up numbers and a round  shape. There is also the difficulty of the number of words that are in writing in the English language and the dilemma of choosing which ones to teach. The problem is highlighted in the extract below.

Word frequency

For every year at school the vocabulary load grows larger. If students are not independent readers and writers and cannot keep up with the academic vocabulary of their ‘English literate’ peers the vocabulary knowledge gap between the vocabulary ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ grows wider as they move from pre-school to secondary school.  Students who learn fewer than 1000 words each year, those with home languages other than English and other students who are traditionally underserved by schools, are at a distinct disadvantage when they are asked to use and understand academic language.

Enjoyable and effective vocabulary instruction  –If we want students to learn the language of school we need to actively, explicitly and thoroughly marinate students in opportunities to see, hear and use these words.

Gone are the days of teaching vocabulary out of context by listing words and their definitions. Apart from word studies, teaching word learning strategies and rich and extensive exposure to words, teaching word consciousness is the way to go. This involves playing with words in order to arouse the curiosity of students about learning and using new words, thinking about how they work and making them keen to learn new words. It can be done directly and indirectly throughout all learning sessions. For this to happen, teachers need to also become word conscious; more aware of words, how they use them and alert to when and how to introduce these words to their students. 

Professional development for word conscious teachers – We believe that teachers who are more word conscious will teach in ways that help students become more word conscious.

The VINE professional development began with an all day meeting of the professional learning community who were working together and then met every six weeks throughout the year. There was cooperation and collaboration as all parties brought their expertise to share. The teachers involved, felt respected and energised by these meetings and regarded them as an effective means of bringing about instructional change.  

They were able to fit the ideas into their own ‘teaching style’ and found that by sharing and collaborating that they were able to spend more time teaching vocabulary and were enthused and motivated to try new ideas into their lessons.  This instruction then translated into increased student knowledge of, awareness of and use of more precise and sophisticated word choice.

ADOPTing a word conscious stance  (Apprenticeship, Discussion, Opportunities, PlanningTime)

Apprenticeship – A weaver learns how to weave by watching other weavers, by formal and informal conversations about techniques, by trial and error and by picking up tips from other weavers.

The aim of the VINE project was to teach students to use words well in order to communicate in an academic setting. It involved helping students to know which aspects to focus on in a safe environment so that they could learn from their mistakes and develop their skills. To do this, the teachers involved, had whole class discussions about how people learn new words, why words are important, how they are used and how they make people feel.

This was helped by discussing rich texts, like Max’s words  (Banks, 2006) and The boy who loved words  (Schotter, 2006) after reading them aloud to their classes. Rich texts were also used as exemplars for phrases which conjured up vivid images for their readers (called Gifts of Words) which the students were then encouraged to use in their own writing. The students would also be involved in peer editing to encourage each other to use better or more ‘juicy’ words. Games played an important part in creating a playful and motivating context for word learning.

Discussion – Discussions, such as those described, are a key technique for conveying important information about how English works.

VINE Project teachers helped students understand the origins of words through discussions and by relating this to what their students already knew through their own language backgrounds. They also discussed author phrase or word choice and how this impacts on the readers’ understanding of the meaning. 

Groups of students were given word clines to order. This involved them discussing the shades of meaning of the words as they pinned them in a line on a clothesline according to their intensity or size. (e.g., big, large, enormous, gigantic, colossal ) Discussions and conversations that use sophisticated and precise word knowledge in context allow students to learn particular vocabulary words as well as learn about vocabulary words in general.

The need for conversations to happen in a safe, non-threatening environment was highlighted. An example was given of a teacher who was asking for words to describe the feelings of a woman in a painting. When one student gave an answer that was slightly inaccurate the teacher was able to gently modify her answer.  Such conversations allow teachers to see areas where students have misconceptions and allow them to provide feedback in a non-threatening manner that builds word knowledge throughout the class.

Opportunities –  Students need opportunities to see, hear and use new vocabulary words in a supportive learning environment.

Teachers can create safe environments where words are played with and explored. For children from backgrounds where academic and literary language is not used the classroom is the only place they may be exposed to more precise and nuanced vocabulary.

Here is where texts rich in language come into their own. They can be;

  • read aloud for all to enjoy their imagery, words and concepts that may not be found in everyday life.
  • used as treasure troves of words to be collected and used in literature circles, games and the students’ own writing. 
  • a source of unusual, interesting and valuable words that used to make connections with words from other multimodal texts or their lives.

    One way to generate enthusiasm and excitement about words is to create many opportunities to play with words in risk-free, safe and non-evaluative settings. Games, inserted throughout the day, enhance students’ excitement about learning words. 

 Planning – purposeful planning helps accelerate students’ vocabulary growth. Small changes in the way you plan lessons can make a big difference.

  •  The first change is an active awareness of the importance of infusing vocabulary knowledge into every lesson. As teachers plan they should think about how to integrate vocabulary learning for words that are sophisticated, as well as subject specific, into their conversations throughout the lesson for exposure and practice.
  • The second change is to plan explicit lessons that focus on extending knowledge of particular words as well as knowledge about words in general. The example given was one where students collected real estate advertisements and then wrote their own ad for an abandoned shack. They discussed which words could be nuanced to make the shack seem more attractive e.g. cozy for tiny. The point was that the exercise was engaging, fun as well as useful for demonstrating the power of words.

Time – Time is a teacher’s most precious commodity. Every day, you make choices about how time is spent in your classroom.

The VINE Project study found that 6% of the school day is typically devoted to the development of vocabulary knowledge, with only 1.4%focused on vocabulary development in academic subjects. This is of particular concern for those students for whom school is the only place where they can learn academic English. Those teachers who participated in the VINE project found that their creation of word consciousness classrooms was not a waste of time because the word learning activities enhanced and increased the students’ understanding of what was being taught across all subject areas as well as their facility with academic language. 


The Action for Vocabulary Development Project with which Lina Taweil and I are involved seems to be following many of these ideas. We have had our introductory day with Paul Dufficy, in which he stressed the importance of planned, well thought-out, engaging vocabulary teaching in safe inclusive learning environments. We will have another time for planning with Paul and Cindy Valdez-Adams (Refugee Support Leader of Fairfield District) before we begin our project and then two times for lesson observations, feedback and further planning in subsequent weeks. I’m very excited about ADOPTing these measures and adapting them to our context. 

Vocabulary Instruction in Fifth Grade and Beyond: Sources of Word Learning and Productive Contexts for Development – Evelyn Ford-Connors and Jeanne R. Paratore

This review was the most in-depth of all the ones in this selection so far. The authors analysed studies which examined different ways of teaching vocabulary using instructional groups and control groups and which measured the impact this instruction had on various aspects of literacy ability in students from Grade 5 through High School. Their analysis is thorough and comprehensive and well worth the read. All references can be found in the hyperlinked PDF. Here is their abstract:

Increasing the vocabulary knowledge of young adolescent and adolescent students has been a focal point of educational research and many teacher professional development initiatives. Yet many teachers continue to use traditional, but generally ineffective, methods of classroom-based vocabulary instruction. Synthesizing the literature around the general topics of vocabulary instruction, classroom discourse, and teacher talk, this review provides a comprehensive and critical examination of instruction that supports vocabulary learning in older students with a particular focus on practices that promote productive discussions of content – Evelyn Ford-Connors and Jeanne R. Paratore  Boston University 

The review begins by stating that a basic level of literacy is insufficient in our current world. Literacy demands are intensifying with ever-changing digital technologies and increasing competition from a global economy. The solution to poor literacy levels in adolescence seems partly to lie in expanding student’s vocabulary knowledge in order to improve their reading comprehension and subsequently give them a better chance at long-term academic achievement. This review sets out to determine how vocabulary is effectively taught in the classroom. It was noted that discussion had a positive effect on text comprehension and learning and the authors included an analysis of its influence on vocabulary learning. As students progress through school their reading demands become more context dense and linguistically complex. They need to develop skills in knowing how to derive the meanings of words as well as to learn and know many more words. 

Vocabulary’s Connection to Comprehension

This study looks at the various hypotheses about the relationship between reading comprehension and vocabulary. The authors do not think that they are competing theories but that they all work together. They are as follows:

  • There is a direct causal relationship between vocabulary and reading ability.
  • General knowledge of the world supports vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension which is connected with patterns of thought. (mental schema)
  • Vocabulary knowledge and reading skill are dependant upon an underlying factor or factors e.g a person’s mental processing capacity, memory or general verbal ability. 
  • The amount of reading done by a person is connected with both reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge which have a reciprocal influence and help each other to develop. 

The Nature of Word Learning

What does it actually mean to ‘know’ a word? Its development is a gradual process of exposure to the word and related ideas as well as experience of it in different contexts, practise of the word and its usage. Word knowledge happens in increments (Dale, 1965); from not ever having heard a word before, to hearing of it but not knowing its meaning, through recognising which ideas or categories it belongs to, to finally, understanding it so well that it can be used in a variety of contexts – spoken and written.  Word knowledge also is multidimensional (Nagy and Scott, 2000). Characteristics of word knowledge are:

  • incrementality – it occurs in small steps
  • polysemy – the same word can have different or similar, nuanced meanings
  • multidimensionality – a word may have various forms depending on; how it is spoken or written, its grammatical function, its location in a sentence, its location with regard to other words and how often its used.
  • interrelatedness – a word’s affinity with categories, ideas, concepts or other words. 
  • heterogeneity – the disparate parts of knowledge that are brought to knowing a word 

Researchers who have investigated classroom based instruction that supports word learning have noted the significant differences in vocabulary acquisition of children starting school. In order to overcome these disparities and to assist reading comprehension and academic success, teachers need to think about the most effective ways to help students to acquire vocabulary knowledge.

Research into deep learning of vocabulary for younger children has shown that vocabulary instruction should:

  • develop not only the definitional knowledge of a word but its many meanings depending on how and where it is used.
  • expose students to the target words multiple times in a range of contexts.
  • ask students to discuss and explain why they have used words and what they understand about word associations. 
  • include attention being drawn to morphology (parts of the words) and syntax (where they occur in a sentence in relation to other words to make sense). 

Despite this, studies have also shown that predominant methods of instruction usually involve teachers drawing attention to words, providing synonyms and then asking students to look them up in a dictionary. These common practices have done little to improve and increase students’ vocabulary and have, in many instances, led to misunderstandings about words. 

Examining the Practices of Vocabulary Instruction

Sources of Word Learning

a) Wide Reading as a Pathway to Vocabulary Knowledge 

Studies have shown that wide reading can contribute to growth in vocabulary as well as general knowledge but, they have also shown that the reading needs to be frequent, in substantial quantities, and to be complex and rich enough to expose the readers to new and sophisticated language. Other findings have shown that most adolescents do not read for pleasure, nor do they read enough for their reading to have an impact on their vocabulary growth.

Choosing to read has a positive impact on vocabulary growth for students. It improves their ability to infer word meaning of unfamiliar words from their context. However studies have shown that this is not a dependable way of learning new words and that it is dependant on a students’ prior reading skills. Students with poor comprehension skills are less able to infer word meaning from context than their peers. Also those students who are bilingual readers generally, do not possess the background knowledge, the knowledge about types of text or the language preparation needed to use context clues that monolingual readers have. Reading rich texts can help vocabulary acquisition when there are teacher interventions like, reader preparation on the purpose of the text, pre-teaching of vocabulary, texts that call attention to words and use of bilingual texts. It doesn’t generally happen on its own. 

 b) Instruction of Word Learning Strategies – context clues, morphological analysis, awareness of polysemy & developing word consciousness

  • Context clues – a useful source of word learning but a skill that needs to be explicitly taught. Five approaches: 1. Teaching students to identify context clues. 2. Using cloze tasks to teach students to notice surrounding words and increase their awareness of related language. 3. Teaching word inference strategies. 4. Developing a general idea of a word’s meaning using definitional approaches. 5. Practice only without instruction.  
  • The most effective of these were ones where the teachers focused on teaching the students strategies to help them to look for context clues, look for words preceding and following in the text and to look for relationships of ideas across sentences and  paragraphs. 
  • When researchers combined teaching strategies for finding context clues with other strategies. e.g. morphemic awareness, or when they taught morphological analysis alone, they found similar results as for the studies for students learning to infer meaning of unfamiliar words. All students who were part of the treatment groups were more effective at inferring word meanings than the control groups who received no instruction. 
  • Morphological Analysis –  (analysis of internal structure of words) – This is an important skill to develop as students progress through school. In the upper years of school most new words, (60% according to Nagy & Scott, 2000), are ‘morphologically complex’. The ability to analyse the ‘meaning- bearing parts’ of words assists in inferring meanings of new words and in using precise vocabulary when writing.  The studies referred to in this review showed that the morphological knowledge gained by the students (some of whom had disabilities), helped the students with working out the meaning of words, how to spell them and also improved their reading comprehension. 
  • Awareness of polysemy – Polysemous words are understood to be ‘ those that have more than one related sense’ (Crossley, Salsbury, & McNamara, 2010) containing a core meaning as well as several related senses. Polysemous words are problematic for most readers but more especially for English language learners because its the common words like ‘get’, run, break, cut … that have the greatest number of different uses and meanings.
  • In the one study that the writers reviewed, there were 283 third and fifth grade students of low income, first and second language learners and students in special education involved. These students were from 16 classes which were randomly assigned as treatment and non-treatment classes. The treatment classes incorporated vocabulary intervention of 36 target words with multiple meanings into their regular class routine for 20 – 30 minutes a day. The interventions which were performed many times in varying contexts included an introductory word- related task, matching activities, definitional maps, reading the words in short passages and writing activities using each word. The groups undertaking the intervention far outperformed the control groups with the greatest gains in vocabulary knowledge being seen in the students with the poorest knowledge to begin with. 
  • Polysemous words and their number of definitions
    Polysemous words and their number of definitions
  • Developing word consciousness – Stahl & Nagy (2006) – word consciousness is a ‘mutli-faceted construct’ (p.140) that incorporates students’ awareness of differences between oral and written language, understandings about the effect that a word’s role in a sentence may have on its meaning (syntactical awareness), knowledge of the effects of word parts on meaning (morphological awareness) and an appreciation of word choice. 
  • Apparently, not many studies have looked at the effect of word consciousness on word learning but most literature talks about the types of instruction for word consciousness.
  • One study showed that when the teacher explained strategies for understanding the meaning of words as well as, how, when and why they should be used as they read and analysed texts, there were significant increases in word knowledge, ability to identify key words in texts, and to see the relationships between words and characters, themes and important ideas in the texts. The students in the treatment group also outperformed the control group in reading comprehension for focal texts. 
  • In another study, fifth grade students from a school from a low socio-economic area were given an intensive 12 week intervention teaching word analysis strategies with guided practice and they also achieved higher scores after this period in vocabulary and reading comprehension measures. There had been a 12 week control period prior to this that measured their growth without the intensive explicit teaching with which to compare their learning. Their scores were also compared with those of a higher performing school where there had not been any intervention and the differences between the scores of the two groups were greatly reduced after the 12 week intervention period. 

c) Direct Instruction of Individual Words 

A meta-analysis by Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) provided convincing evidence that direct instruction of key words has immediate benefit and is tied to improved reading comprehension.

Learning approaches that included contextual information as well as definitional information had a greater effect than strategies that only included definitional information. Not surprisingly, the more exposures in different contexts and repetition of information, the larger the positive effect on word learning and reading comprehension scores.

The problem is …. which words should be chosen as focus words?

Some say Tier Two words; defined as words regularly used and understood by mature language users and whose knowledge supports comprehension and communicative ability across contexts and subject areas. 

Others (e.g. Biemiller, 2003 p.331) proposed teaching words that students “commonly encounter, rather than uncommon and complex words.”

Nagy, Anderson, Schommer, Scott, and Stallman (1989) and Templeton (1992) wanted to look at systematic instruction of words based on morphological characteristics and relatedness across word families.

Hiebert (2005) wanted to extend this focus to include words that students might know through association with known words, words possessing derivatives that students frequently encounter, and words with multiple meanings.

The National Reading Panel (2000, pp. 4–5) preferred that the words chosen for instruction were ones that are “derived from content learning materials” and, therefore, conceptually related to the material being taught.

Finally, others wanted words chosen from the Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000) and providing instruction in those words common to disciplinary literacy and across academic texts (Nagy & Townsend, 2012).

In summary, the words chosen should be those which the students will encounter in their learning environment and they need to be words are used for rich communication. When teaching these words the approaches should build upon students’ prior knowledge and enable them to use the new words in their own unique communications.

 d) Direct Instruction Plus Strategies

Studies have shown that this strengthens students’  knowledge about words as well as of  words (Carlo et al., 2004; Lesaux et al., 2010). In one study of 254, 5th grade students who were predominantly English language learners, there was a 15 week intervention with a curriculum focus which incorporated topical readings. Ten classrooms were the treatment classrooms and six served as the control groups. Focusing on 10-12 target words per week the teachers used explicit instruction and word learning strategies to incorporate context clues, morphology, polysemy, and etymology. The treatment groups scored higher on measures of vocabulary knowledge and word analysis strategies than the control groups. 

In  another similar study (Lesaux et al 2010) with 6th graders across seven schools in an 18 week program, teachers chose 8-9 high utility academic words which were taught across an 8 day cycle. The teachers involved taught the students word learning strategies and how to analyse context and word parts. They used the target words in activities like crossword puzzles and in answering text based questions and the students used the words in their writing. When compared with the students from the control group, the intervention-group students (both native and nonnative speaking) displayed significantly greater knowledge of target words, knowledge of word meanings in context, and morphological skills.

These studies showed that in normal classrooms, combining the explicit teaching of target words with strategies for word analysis is effective in helping students to begin to do the same, independently. 

Contexts for Teaching and Learning Vocabulary 

A related line of research in vocabulary instruction has focused on discussion as a productive context for vocabulary teaching and learning. A discourse-rich approach to instruction is rooted in the work of Vygotsky (1978), who held that language serves as the principal tool for sharing knowledge and creating common understandings. He emphasized the crucial role of language in the development of students’ thinking, or inner language, to enable critical thinking and analysis and argued that thinking is facilitated and enhanced through interactions with a more knowledgeable other within a social community (Resnick, Levine, & Teasley, 1991).

Discussion can serve to support students’ word learning in a language-rich context as they explore words’ meanings and uses and connect vocabulary to texts being read and the content of the curriculum. The review looked at various studies that organised for students to work with teachers, other students in small groups and pairs as they discussed and worked together on activities involving word analysis, context clues, writing conventions and dictionary meanings. Their conclusions were that instructional conversations and group discussions with peers, enable students to hear and use the focus words in contexts that are authentic and appropriate. Discussion thus offers both a context and a tool for examining the relationships of words to important ideas and holds potential for improving student learning.

Despite evidence of their effectiveness, discussions as contexts for word learning are relatively uncommon in the classroom (Scott et al., 2003). There is not much literature to guide teachers in how facilitate discussions to engage students in conversations about vocabulary. Studies have shown that less teacher talk and more student talk have led to higher learning outcomes for students but it is not necessarily the quantity of talk but the quality that is needed to make discussions effective. Teachers need to learn how to engage students in critical thinking about important concepts using rich language. At the same time in these conversations have to be engineered so that the students can make connections between themselves, their texts and the world so that they can make logical links across different areas of learning and articulate their thinking and learning. 

Based on an analysis of instances of teacher and student questioning, extended explanations, task-related verbal exchanges, and “reasoning words” (Soter et al., 2008, p. 373), the results showed that the most productive teacher- and student-led discussions were framed by the teacher and included extended student talk, open-ended teacher questions, and high levels of teacher uptake. Longer periods of student explanation, prompted through teachers’ questions, resulted in more student reasoning and critical analysis of content. The article looks at several studies of ‘teacher- talk’ and concludes that the most effective talk: 

  • is diverse, flexible, and consisting of an extensive repertoire and variety of talk (Sharpe, 2008; Soter et al., 2008) that supports constructive, content-related interactions with students throughout lessons.

  • has repertoires which represent a range of instructional elicitations and responses that build connections for students and help them integrate new information with what is already known (Nystrand et al., 2003; Wolf et al., 2005).
  • routinely embeds relevant vocabulary, such that students hear words used authentically and in ways related to important content and are presented with opportunities to use relevant words in their talk (Sharpe, 2008).

  • scaffolds students’ learning by stimulating exploratory talk and critical reasoning about content and engaging students with each other in instructional explorations (Sharpe, 2008; Soter et al., 2008).


This article contained findings that are relevant to our Action for vocabulary development project that Lina Taweil and I are taking part in. We will need to think carefully about which words we will target to teach our Science Unit on Composting to this class of children with diverse abilities and interests. We will need to build tasks that help our students to analyse the vocabulary so that they know about the focus words as well as of them through discussions that we facilitate rather than dominate. 


Here ends Part 1. This post is already far too long. Well done to you if you have persisted to the end. The rest of the articles below, will be reviewed in The Research Before the Action Part 2

Teachers’ Instruction and Students’ Vocabulary and Comprehension: An Exploratory Study With English Monolingual and Spanish–English Bilingual Students in Grades 3–5 R – R D Silverman 

Speeding Up Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition of Minority Children – Rene Appel and Anne Vermeer 

Chapter 8  Teaching Academic Vocabulary K-8 : Effective Practices Across the Curriculum – Blachowicz, Camille, et al.

Word Meanings Matter: Cultivating English Vocabulary Knowledge in Fifth-Grade Spanish-Speaking Language Minority Learners – Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez 

Extending Children’s Vocabulary and Comprehension through Oral and Visual Literacy -Victoria Cochrane

Chapter 2 Vocabulary Assessment to Support Instruction : Building Rich Word-Learning Experiences – McKeown, Margaret G., et al. 

Vocabulary – Annette Bayetto



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