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How to Expand Teens’ Vocabulary (Opinion)

Today’s post is the fourth in a series offering strategies to support older students experiencing reading challenges.

You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

‘Knowing Words Deeply Is Multidimensional’

Toni Faddis, Ed.D., previously a bilingual teacher, Reading Recovery specialist, and principal, is now a full-time professional consultant.

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University, is also the dean of faculty affairs at Health Sciences High and Middle College, San Diego.

Diane Lapp, Ed.D., Distinguished Professor of Education at San Diego State, is also an academic coach at Health Sciences High and Middle College:

Teachers, we have so many choices when it comes to selecting vocabulary to teach that we may sometimes feel overwhelmed and unsure of which words to select and then how best to teach them. Our choices are pressure-filled because we realize that to comprehend a text independently, a reader must know 98 percent of its words (Hu & Nation, 2000).

In this post, which is the next installment of a series dedicated to supporting adolescent readers, we share ideas regarding how to best select and teach vocabulary such that students use both knowledge and skills to unlock the meaning of the topic, passage, or situation at hand. The goal is for students to know a word well enough to define it, explain it, and use it when they wish. This occurs by having opportunities to interact with selected words in repeated contexts.

Tiers of Words

Importantly, there are three categories of words to be mindful of: Tier 1 (general vocabulary), Tier 2 (specialized vocabulary or general academic), and Tier 3 (technical vocabulary or domain-specific) words. Since Tier 1 words are typically acquired through interactions with others and text, they usually do not warrant explicit instruction. Rather, teachers should devote time to the high-utility Tier 2 words that are used across content areas such as analyze, persuade, and capital, as well as the domain-specific Tier 3 words of their content area.

Explicit vocabulary instruction of Tier 2 and Tier 3 words must be designed so students deepen their content knowledge and gain skills to decipher unknown words independently. Some words are best taught through direct instruction. Other words can be solved by attending to their structure or to nearby context clues. We suggest that when selecting Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary words to teach explicitly, you ask:

1. Is the word critical to understanding?

2. Will the word be needed in discussions or writing?

If yes, then decide how students will learn the new word:

· via direct instruction

· exposure through videos, images, and discussion

· using a word-solving strategy

Knowing words deeply is multidimensional, and students learn best when they interact with words and use them when engaging with each other; copying definitions does little for comprehension. Instead, make it fun so students develop a playful and curious attitude toward language and learning. Keep it short by choosing 5-10 target words per week. Below are four choices teachers might make when deciding the best instructional approach for target vocabulary.

Teach the Words

Choice #1: Direct Instruction of Tier 3 Words

Direct instruction occurs when teachers clearly demonstrate or explain the meaning of a word. It’s a better instructional choice when students are unlikely to learn target words through word solving. A direct-instruction vocabulary routine begins by providing a description or example of the unfamiliar word in student-friendly language and ensuring that students pronounce it multiple times.

Teachers often pair an image to the meaning of the word to develop a better understanding. Next, students think deeply and develop their own related explanations and examples in their own words, often working in pairs or collaborative groups to practice the word. Finally, students record the target words, their explanations, nonlinguistic representations, synonyms, and antonyms in their vocabulary notebooks for future reference. Colorin Colorado offers this video of a teacher providing direct instruction to multilingual learners.

Choice #2: Build Background Knowledge

Since vocabulary acquisition is accelerated by one’s background knowledge, teachers often build students’ background knowledge by using a curated text set prior to beginning a new unit. A text set is an intentionally grouped collection of texts and media resources at a range of complexity levels that focus on a particular topic. Using topically created resources grows students’ vocabulary and knowledge and is often used to bolster curriculum when there are gaps in perspectives, relevance, or representation. Achieve the Core publishes several text sets that build background knowledge, such as this one about World War II for middle school students.

This strategic exposure provides foundational knowledge that a teacher can activate during the unit of study. New knowledge is more likely to stick when students have background knowledge of the topic at hand.

Choice #3: Create a Morphological Word Matrix

Developing word independence involves teaching students how words work—looking inside of the word to figure out the meaning. Having knowledge of roots, base words, and affixes enables students to decipher words they encounter when reading.

For example, students may recognize the word thermometer but don’t make the link to other words in the ‘therm’ family. Model for students to look inside the word for its different parts, identifying the root, prefixes, and suffixes. Having a “root of the week” approach is one way many teachers systematically teach Greek and Latin roots so when students encounter thermal, thermostat, geothermic, hypothermia, and thermoelectricity, they will recognize each of these words is associated with heat. A tool that supports teachers creating word matrices, and related word sums, is the Mini Matrix maker. This site generates a word matrix based on the word you enter, as shown below. Notably, an understanding of roots, base words, and affixes also helps students to spell more accurately.

Choice #4: Learn From Context Clues

Another choice for teaching vocabulary is through modeling how to use context clues. This approach is often referred to as looking outside of the word in order to determine its meaning. There are many categories of context clues that authors provide to readers, including synonyms, antonyms, descriptions, examples, and definitions. Here is a quick video of modeling how to use context clues to support students using this strategy when reading independently. It’s important to note that not all context clues aid meaning; teachers should model when a context clue doesn’t work and what to do next.


Teachers, we have choices when selecting vocabulary words to teach. It’s vital that students have strong vocabularies, so they are able to express themselves as well as make sense of what they read and hear. Since vocabulary knowledge is a significant predictor of academic and life success, teachers can model through direct instruction and word solving strategies that make acquiring new words fun and interesting.

Students can consolidate their knowledge through collaborative and independent vocabulary routines where they generate their own definitions and explanations of new words.

Thanks to Douglas, Diane, and Toni for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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