Write down a synonym for the following words or use them in a sentence if you can:
Did you try the exercise?
Girn may have been an unfamiliar word, but what part of speech might it be? A verb? You’re right! Girn means to grimace or make grotesque faces. How about fug? We carefully enunciate the ‘g’ sound when we say this out loud. Did you think it might have something to do with the weather? It’s an airless smoky atmosphere. Does hircine make you think of porcine? That’s because it describes something resembling a goat. And while yerd sounds like a Dr. Seuss word, it actually means to poke or beat with a stick. Last but not least, a sesamoid is something resembling a sesame seed and a bony nodule. If you came up with some definitions or sentences that had you laughing aloud, your attempt looked a lot like ours . . . and you too may be a word nerd.
In a recent Common Core professional development session aimed at raising awareness of the shift to focused and intentional vocabulary instruction, we asked teachers in our district to try the “quiz” above. In doing so, these teachers talked together about the many strategies they used to try to define unfamiliar words. Upon revealing the true meanings of these words, we found that our guesses at definitions were for the most part highly inaccurate. The strategies we had all employed didn’t serve us well, because most words gave us few clues for making meaning (such as word parts or context). These are not words we encounter in either spoken or written language very often, and therefore nobody in the room had any previous experience to aid them in coming up with a definition.
Less is More and the Three Tiers
The quiz provided an excellent platform for sharing the qualities of words that are worthy of the time an in-depth exploration takes. In Common Core Conversations: Vocabulary, we shared our understanding of the three tiers of vocabulary instruction. We explored the importance of identifying words that our students will encounter and use in both written and spoken language. We believe that less is more when considering the number of words to teach.
After reading the article, participants in the professional development session recognized the quiz words as “Tier 3” words: words that are rarely used in daily language, that are content specific, and in this case, may not have Greek or Latin word parts to offer clues. Teachers recognized that they’d be teaching Tier 3 words when the words would help students understand a math, science or social studies concept.
Nobody needed convincing that time spent on Tier 2 words is time well-spent. We reviewed the definition of a Tier 2 word:
- likely to have prefixes,
- or other word parts,
- appear more in written text than speech
- not content-specific
Predictably, everyone wondered how they would find the Tier 2 words to teach well. Is there a list on the Internet?
We know there are lists available on the web, but we wanted to collaborate with teachers to look at a text and make informed decisions about which words are worth the time to slow down and go deep with students.
Then participants read an article and selected words they might consider teaching. Their list had words like environmental, solution, navigating, estimation, communication, elaborating, and reinforce.
Take a moment for yourself right now and scan the first two paragraphs of the “Less is More and the Three Tiers” section of this article, just above where you are reading now. Which Tier 2 words did we use?
exploration, conversation, understanding, vocabulary, instruction, explored, importance, identifying, encounter, considering, recognized
Of those words, which ones would be useful for fourth graders to know? Do those words apply to other content areas? Would knowing the meaning of the word help them with other texts? We asked teachers in the workshop these questions. We heard things like “Explored and/or exploration would make sense for me to work on with my class. We are studying the Oregon Trail, but have also ‘explored’ the human body in our science study. My kids would really benefit from a look at the nuanced meanings of this word.” As they talked, teachers were doing the type of identifying and decision-making inherent in quality vocabulary instruction.
Teachers help students comprehend vocabulary in many ways. Two common approaches are cueing and embedding. When Amanda was in the classroom with a first-year teacher, cueing sounded like, “Today we are going to read this passage, which means this short part from here to here.” The students relied on the teacher’s “which means” cue and pointing to help understand the meaning of the word passage. A veteran teacher embedded vocabulary in this way for her first graders: “We are going to pick up a writing utensil — a tool we use to write — and get to work on our lists.” Heather gave feedback to the teacher, noting how she was embedding meaning for students as she flexibly used words. The teacher was surprised and said, “I guess I do that naturally.” It’s true. Many of us implicitly teach vocabulary and that’s a good thing. In addition, it’s important to be explicit about our approach to vocabulary.
Amanda learned this technique from Susan Ebbers from Reading Way where she begins by having the students listen before they even see the word.
“Listen,” she says, “Re-in-force. Now you say it. Say each part after me. Re. In. Force. Say the last syllable the loudest like this — re in FORCE.”
After attending to the sounds, syllables, and emphasis, she moves into meaning.
She says, “To reinforce means to strengthen something. When we reinforce something, we are adding to it to make it stronger.”
Making a motion with her hands coming together, Amanda turns it into a game, “I’m going to tell you about something and if it shows the meaning of reinforced you will say, ‘It is reinforced’ and do the movement.”
“The construction crew added steel beams to the bridge.”
“It is reinforced!” the students cry.
She continues with, “The teacher told students the rules for how to sit at the carpet and then showed them how to do it.”
“It is reinforced!” they repeat.
Then she gives them a non-example, “John took a block from the bottom of the tower of blocks.”
And the students stay silent.
“Now let’s see this word. There are three parts. Say each part when I point. Now read the whole word. Turn to your shoulder partner and share a sentence using reinforce.”
By now, the students have used the word reinforce a half-dozen times and have heard it pronounced correctly several more. They understand that learning a new word includes the ears, the body, the eyes, and of course the brain as they work to make the word part of their vocabulary.
As we move forward with word learning we carry the lessons of knowing how to sort words within the three tiers, helping colleagues in examining which words are worth the time to teach deeply, and using multiple strategies for noticing and naming words as we expand our vocabularies together.