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When Teaching Vocabulary Feels Hard

I just spent seven weeks on the road working with so many amazing teachers. We spent a lot of time talking about how to teach vocabulary and there were a lot of important (and reoccurring) questions like:

  • How do I choose words?
  • How do I do more than cover the new vocabulary?
  • How do I help students begin to use the words without prompting?
  • How do I make vocabulary stick?

Tried & True How

Based on the research of Beck et al. (Bringing Words to Life), these are the simple instructional steps I shared with the teachers:

  1. for a lesson, choose only 1-2 key words to spend focused time on (these may or may not be in the source)
  2. write a kid-friendly definition in big print for students to reference (good definitions can help students explain their thinking)
  3. rely on simple steps to introduce the word (define, associate, turn & talk, lightly link to the text)
  4. don’t shy away from providing sentence stems as students use the words (even with older students)
  5. integrate the vocabulary into as many components of the lesson(s) as possible.

If you want to read more on this, check out a blog I co-wrote with the amazing Britany Harris at


Below are some artifacts from the lessons I demonstrated or co-taught this fall. As you look, consider the following questions (that might help you as you plan):

  • Why did we choose these words?
  • How might being able to refer to the definitions of these words help students explain what they learned?
  • How might we integrate the use of these words into conferences? Or discussion questions? Or prompts for written responses?

With 8th grade students reading about a special type of amnesia
With 5th grade students reading about one boy’s mission to clean up trash in the desert near his home
With 3rd grade students reading about how the shape of a bird’s beak determines how they catch and eat their prey
Ha! I think someone talked me into doing this with first graders! They rose up to the challenge!

Hope this helps.


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Uncategorized,   Vocabulary


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