Dear Literacy Coach


Gerri Hixenbaugh

Dear Literacy Coach,

I teach at a school that includes several students from impoverished backgrounds. Recently I've learned that many of these students begin kindergarten with a 3,000-word vocabulary deficit compared to students from higher socio-economic homes. I know the importance of explicitly teaching vocabulary words, but I am unsure which words I should teach and how to teach them in order to have the greatest impact on my students. Do you have any suggestions?


At a Loss for Words

Dear At a Loss,

Many teachers have the same concern you do. We know we should teach vocabulary words to our students but don't know which words will make the biggest difference.

Heibert and Kamil, (2005) suggest a number of ways to select words to teach:

  • Choose words that are generally useful, words students are likely to encounter again.
  • Consider the instructional potential of the words, particularly ways they connect to other words and concepts.
  • Select some Tier 2words, those more likely to appear in texts than occur in conversation. They are often synonyms of Tier 1 words (Tier 1 = bug/Tier 2 = insect). Many will not be completely new to students, but are still useful to emphasize and discuss.
  • Select some Tier 3 words—words that are content specific. Tier 3 words are most often found in science, math, and social studies.
  • Include words about story characters, setting, problem, solution, etc.
  • Teach some words that have multiple meanings.

However, knowing which words to teach is only half the battle. You will also need to know how to develop a strong vocabulary program. This can be done by explicitly teaching specific vocabulary words by using descriptions and providing at least seven to twelve exposures to the word in different contexts. For every word you teach your students explicitly, many in the class will learn one to three connected words inadvertently. Vocabulary words should be taught before, during, and after reading.

Exposing your students to rich language through read-alouds and class discussion is another important way to help them learn new words. Read-alouds should be from texts two to three years above their current grade level. Students should listen with a purpose in mind and discuss what they have learned. Reading aloud to students increases their receptive language, and rereading increases their expressive vocabulary as well.

Word parts such as prefixes, suffixes, base words, and root words are important in a powerful word study program. This type of knowledge will easily transfer to other words. Students will also need to learn how to figure out words in context. Finally, teaching cognates, words with a Latin base that are similar to English words, can be particularly helpful for our English language learners.

It is important to remember that learning vocabulary words is not like an on/off switch, but more like a dimmer switch that makes things brighter and clearer with each exposure to the word. Therefore, the more opportunities you provide using words in different contexts, the better the understanding the students will develop.

Strong vocabulary instruction is a powerful way to build word knowledge and comprehension. Knowing which words to teach and how to teach them will provide a great advantage for your students. Best of luck in designing and implementing your program!

The Literacy Coach
Gerri Hixenbaugh

Gerri Hixenbaugh is currently a BYU intern facilitator with a passion for literacy and learning.  She has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Utah as well as a Jordan School District literacy specialist.  She has also been president of UCIRA.