Douglas Fisher has spent decades researching the place of vocabulary instruction in literacy programs at all grade levels. He is the author or coauthor of many books and articles for teachers, including Improving Adolescent Literacy and Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading. In this podcast with Heather Rader, Doug discusses his latest work connecting vocabulary, comprehension, and the Common Core.
A full transcript is available below the player.
Heather Rader: Doug, you’ve been thinking about how mastering vocabulary supports deeper comprehension of text for learners for many years. In what ways has your thinking about being word wise changed over time?
Doug Fisher: I think we’ve really learned a lot about what it takes for kids to learn a lot of words and learn them quickly. We’ve known for a long time that reading and reading widely helps kids with vocabulary but that’s not sufficient, they also need to be taught specific words. I think you know that making a word list and doing some instruction with the words can help, but I think we’re getting to the point now where we really understand the roll of modeling, of word solving strategies and I’m really interested in this aspect of word learning. When a teacher reads a piece of text and models his or her thinking, noticing words and how that adult is thinking about the word. Is the adult using word parts and morphology, or is the adult using context clues, or non-direct clues when there are context clues that just don’t work, or misdirective clues, or using punctuation?
You know there’s just ways of thinking aloud about how we think through the word that builds students habits over time. They’re not just you know a list of words you must learn these ten words this week, but teaching them how to think about words so when they come to unknown words, they have some habits and strategies that they can rely on to make sense of those words. And that works for a lot of words. It’s not of course every word. There’s sometimes where there really is no word part, there’s no morphology that’s gonna help and there’s no context clue that’s gonna help. So then you have to look at resources. What resources could we use to figure out that word? So I think over time it’s gotten a little clearer about the role of the teacher and not just teaching directly the words but also looking at the modeling the solving of words.
Heather Rader: That’s great. And even just that whole idea of you know building those habits of okay, first I’m gonna look for this and then I’m gonna look for this, and then okay when none of those are available I need to go to different resources. And you know even knowing to switch between those two modes is huge for a learner with words.
Doug Fisher: Right. Exactly. And how you make decisions about when to use words parts or context clues or resources, how you think through, like boy that’s not making sense. I used this context clue but that doesn’t make any sense, it must be a misdirective or nondirective clue.
Heather Rader: Yeah. That’s great. So when you consider the Common Core standard for example in fourth grade with the informational text it reads, determine the meaning of general academic and the main specific words or phrases in a text relevant to grade four topic or subject area. What works with that standard and is there anything missing there?
Doug Fisher: I think that standard works. I think it’s a little bit more generic language. Some people have heard of like tier one, tier two and tier three vocabulary . . .
Heather Rader: Right.
Doug Fisher: Other people have heard more of a middle school, high school version of that called general, specialized and technical. And the Common Core saying – here’s the way of thinking about vocabulary, it’s based on what the profession has known. We’re going to call them some general academic words and some domain specific words and phrases. One of the things I really appreciate in the Common Core is that we’re moving beyond a single word and also recognizing that there are phrases and each word within the phrase may be completely understandable, but when you put the phrase together it doesn’t make any sense. And that you know often occurs in idioms and figurative language but not only, it’s the way an author constructs that phraseology that might confuse the reader.
And I think the Common Core thinks let’s make sure we pay attention to words and phrases not just single words, which is wise. I think that the example standard you gave from fourth-grade about determining meaning, we have to develop students habits in determining meaning. We can’t possibly tell them the meaning of every word they’re going to encounter –
Heather Rader: Right.
Doug Fisher: – in the text they’re going to read, we’d run out of time. As we were saying before, we have to build those habits. Kids have to know when they come to an unknown word, that they have ways of thinking and figuring out that word. And they have to know when their systems don’t work, when those systems fail, what do you do. In the old days I think we used to mostly say skip it and reread or skip it and come back or whatever. And I think we’re more sophisticated now. We’re really saying that the learner needs to work to make sense of the words and then reread to make sure that the word works in that context.
Heather Rader: Yes. That’s such a great point about moving beyond the word too. Yes. So when I heard you at a recent keynote here in the Pacific Northwest, you talked about how struggling is situational and you shared a great anecdote from your own life of taking a class. And so thinking about when we as teachers build background for a young learner who’s situationally struggling with vocabulary, what do you think, in addition to you know kind of what you talked about with building the habits, what are the must have for instruction for kids that are situationally struggling?
Doug Fisher: I think we forget that one of the greatest predictors of comprehension is background knowledge. And I think you know there’s all these popular comprehension strategies, you know predicting and summarizing and questioning and clarifying. And all of those work when you have background knowledge and your background knowledge is expressed through your vocabulary. If you have a word for it, you have some concept for it. Now you might need depth of that concept, etcetera, but we really need to think about in our instruction where are we developing and where are we activating background knowledge. And I think we have to be careful not to overdo this. I mean to remove the reason to read is not useful. So if you do so much –
Heather Rader: Right.
Doug Fisher: – background knowledge building that you’ve essentially told the whole story or told all the information, why would I need to read this, you just told me all of it. I’m not suggesting we do that, but I am suggesting that we notice gaps in students’ background knowledge and gaps in their prior knowledge. Nancy Frey and I talk a lot about the difference between background knowledges are built on experiences including reading or direct experiences, and prior knowledge are the things that you were formally taught. And students have gaps in both things they were formally taught, you know they miss school or whatever or change schools that have different content in different grade levels. So we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re assessing and developing that background knowledge because that’s gonna be a primary predictor of whether or not the student understands the text that they’re encountering in school.
We can’t just say okay here’s some background knowledge you need to have. We have to keep building those experiences for kids and I don’t mean like okay now we’re gonna read this book about volcanoes and I’m gonna tell you everything you need to know about volcanoes. I’m talking about just the wide range of knowledge that learners need to be successful, and giving them the words for that knowledge. Some people talk about the concepts and the labels for those concepts and I think that’s what we have to do. Is when we talk about a concept we have to make sure we’re using the label for it so that that knowledge is there for students. I also think we should really figure out how to get more kids reading more every day.
They need to encounter all those words. The words they know and the words that they’re learning in text. And the evidence is starting to show that students are reading less for a variety of reasons, but you know there’s been documentation that students, young people read less than they’ve read in the past. There are competing priorities for their time, there are other things to do besides read and reading’s not very cool for some kids. Whatever the reason, they’re reading less and that’s gonna have a long-term impact on background knowledge and vocabulary.
Heather Rader: In that same keynote you were talking about feed forward in comparison to feedback and so back to our fourth-grade example when we were talking about determining the meaning of the words and phrases. How do you see a teacher using feed forward to plan instruction for kids around vocabulary?
Doug Fisher: I think that we have to look at error analysis. We have to get better at looking at students’ work and figuring out where are the errors and misconceptions and then we have to catalog those errors so we know how to group our students. So if these five students are making mistakes, or errors, or have misconceptions about these kinds of words we need to pull them together and do a lesson on it. We don’t have to teach the whole class that content because we have no evidence the rest of the class needs that content. When we hit on these error analysis tools of really you know taking apart a standard and saying what are the component parts that you’re looking for for mastery of that standard or that content, it started helping us figure out what feed forward meant. Students give us work that’s their best thinking at the time and then we write all over it and give it back to them and they essentially just throw it away or they may be compliant and fix everything that we told them to fix.
But more specifically in vocabulary, we should be looking for students’ use of those target words, those domain specific words and those general academic words. How are they using the words as they interact with other people in group work and as they produce written work? And if we’re cataloguing those errors and we’re saying wow these students are not getting multiple meaning words very well. They’re really not changing out the words and they’re using them in only one way or these students are really not using very technical academic language. That’s one indicator on our error analysis form that we look for in student work and in student discussion that tells us here’s what I need to do next. We think about this a lot. If we assess it, it’s not just to give the work back to students. We assess it so we can think about what do I need to teach that student next.
Heather Rader: I was just reflecting on the piece of what you were saying is that it’s about looking at assessing their vocabulary in context of their writing.
Doug Fisher: Yes.
Heather Rader: It’s not just a vocabulary test of do they know these words, but looking at their writing and the types of words that they’re using as a way to design our instruction of what they need.
Doug Fisher: Yes. In fact, we’ve been working on ways to provoke the errors that kids make. We call them generative sentences. There are other ways of doing this, but if you think about this, let’s say we’ve been learning about the human body and the cells and organs and all those kinds of things. Fifth grade. And you say to students, I’d like you to write the word cell, c-e-l-l, in the third position of a sentence. So it goes word, word, cell and then some more words. And that sentence has to be at least eight words long. By having student do that, very intentionally you can get a sense of if they understand the word’s meaning and –
Heather Rader: Wow.
Doug Fisher: – the word’s usage because they have to control all the grammar around it. So for fifth graders who are studying the Constitution, the teacher said to them at one point, I would like you to write a sentence with the word Constitution in the last position of a sentence exactly ten words long. And they went to work and they were editing and revising to get that sentence correct. The teacher was looking to say, oh did they use the right meaning of the word and did they control all the sentence structure, grammar around that word. And if not, I better teach them something. We can make that way easier. I can pick a word that starts with the letter H, put that in a sentence. I can say pick a word that starts with the letter H, put that in the fourth position of a sentence. I can add conditions and how long I want it, how short I want it, but provoking those kind of errors in vocabulary help us think about students understanding mastery.
Because I’m not looking at a test where I constructed the sentence, I’m looking at their invention of a sentence based on some conditions that I’ve given them.
Heather Rader: That is so great.
Doug Fisher: Thank you.
Heather Rader: I feel like I want to go use that today.
Doug Fisher: Well, good.
Heather Rader: So what are some of the projects that you’re working on right now?
Doug Fisher: I’m working a lot on Common Core and what it all means and how we unpack all that great information out there and figure out some really good teaching opportunities with it. Including the standards around vocabulary and how we think about the three things and the technical parts of the standards. You know really specially says the students will use word parts or morphology and it does say that they will use context, clues and resources, which I really appreciate about the Common Core. ‘Cause those three things are things we all do. I also continue to work on gradual release of responsibility and being very intentional through teacher modeling and students’ productive group work and guided instruction and independent learning tasks and really thinking through what it takes to cause, facilitate, guide learning with students.
Heather Rader: Well thank you Doug so much for taking the time to talk with us about Common Core and vocabulary. You’ve given me a lot to think about.
Doug Fisher: Thank you.