Making Time for Vocabulary Instruction that Matters

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 2.33.31 PM.pngYears and years ago, before I had been bitten by the writing workshop bug, I became obsessed with vocabulary instruction. My school used a series of vocabulary workbooks at each grade level, and I had witnessed how that approach didn’t worked. Not for real. Not for the long term. Some students would dutifully memorize the words, earn a high score on the quiz, and forthrightly forget most of what they had learned. Many of my students would even bother — they would sort of study the words, sort of learn some of them, earn a low quiz grade, and move on with their day.

So, I did lots of reading and research — particularly of Janet Allen — and devised a series of in-depth, meaningful approaches to actually teach vocabulary so that my students learned, retained, and used new and increasingly sophisticated words.

The problem here was time. If I spent an average of 270 minutes per week with any given class, I was using about half of those minutes just on vocabulary instruction.  Reading instruction, whole-class literature, independent reading, and writing were all squeezed into the other half. My vocabulary instruction was amazing — and my students actually loved it and looked forward to it — but it was the core of my class, and that didn’t feel right either.

After diving into writing workshop with my students, I’ll be honest, I ditched explicit vocabulary instruction altogether. I didn’t know how to do it well and do it efficiently. I quoted studies that say, “Students get the best vocabulary instruction by simply reading”, and I left it at that. A third paltry solution.

Today, I am not going to give you a list of vocabulary activities — you can easily find those on your own, and there are lots of good ones out there! (Again, check out Janet Allen’s books! She is brilliant and her work is suitable for any grade level.). What I want to offer you instead is a brief look at what we know works in vocabulary instruction and a handful of  ideas for how you can build this instruction into our current writing instruction, so that students don’t simply understand the words they read but can also use them effectively to improve their writing.

In “A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction” (2010), the National Reading Technical Assistance Center boiled effective vocabulary instruction down to three essentials that will increase the likelihood that students will understand, remember, and use new words:

  • High frequency of exposure — Students need to see and use the word more than once, and they need to be reintroduced to words from time-to-time!
  • Explicit instruction — Students benefit from hearing adults talk about what words mean, situations in which you should use the word, and words’ connotative value.
  • Using questioning and language engagement with the new words  — Students need to hear definitions, connotations, potential uses of a word … and then they need to actually use it themselves, either in conversation or in writing.

Simple, right?

With these essentials in mind, here is how we can infuse some meaningful vocabulary instruction into time that is already carved out of the curriculum — Notebook Time! Since I already use these daily 5-7 minutes for play and “extra” instruction, why not give some of that time to vocabulary?

Including Vocabulary Instruction in the Notebook Time I’m Already Doing:

When I do sentence study …

  • Define a key word in the mentor sentence. Instruct students that the keyword must appear in their new version of that sentence. In your discussion, ask “How does the keyword enhance the meaning of your new sentence?”
  • Define a key word in the sentence for students, and then instruct them to find the best synonym for that word in their new version of the sentence.
  • Leave out a key word in the mentor sentence. Have students guess the right word based on context. Give them the original word, define it for them, and then see which student got the closest (or even got it spot on!)

When I use adaptable poems / spoken word poetry …

  • After reading the poem, define a keyword for the students. Have them write about how this word impacts the meaning of the poem, or how the poem would be different without it.
  • Define a few (3-4) keywords from the poem. Then, ask students to consider how these words relate to each other. (Janet Allen’s “Concept Circles” could be used here.)

When I use raw data …

  • Define a key word used in the chart or graph. You might be surprised how many of these terms are unfamiliar. Ask students how that word changes their understanding of the information they are looking at. For example, check out this chart from

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 12.47.24 PM

Many of my students would not know what “jurisdictions” means, but knowing that term is crucial to them understanding that this data represents national trends rather than local ones.

  • Have students use their phones or computers (or a dictionary!) to define any terms they don’t know in a significant statistic. Students can then share their words, their definitions, and why those words matter to the understanding of this fact.

         Here’s an example from Five Thirty-Eight’s Significant Digits:

5th Amendment

Martin Shkreli, a pharmaceutical executive notorious for cranking up the price of a life-saving anti-parasitic drug from $13.50 per pill to $750, was brought before Congress to testify on drug pricing Thursday. Given that he’s been arrested for securities fraud, Shkreli invoked his Fifth Amendment rights often. He even pleaded the Fifth after being asked about the Wu-Tang Clan album he bought for $2 million. [Digg]

         My students would likely need to define “notorious”, “anti-parasitic” and                 “invoked”.  We could further look at vocabulary from the perspective of connotation in this statistic by asking students what the writer adds by using “cranking up” instead of “raising” when referring to what Shkreli did to the price of drugs.

When I have students quickwrite …

  • Define a keyword from mentor texts or whole-class reading, and challenge students to use it in today’s quickwrite.
  • After students have completed a quickwrite, have them switch notebooks with a neighbor, and underline three broad, specific words in their neighbor’s quickwrite. Neighbors can then work together to brainstorm more precise, clear word choice to replace vague and flabby words.
  • Challenge students to connect a keyword (from a mentor text, from whole-class reading, from independent reading) to their writing lives by brainstorming genres in which they would most likely see this word used. Alternatively, students could scan their list of writing territories or heart maps and identify topics in which they might use the keyword.

By sharing out after Notebook Time, students will have opportunities to talk and listen to discussion about words. By bringing previously-discussed words back into Notebook Time periodically, students can have increased exposure to the words that will not only build their reading comprehension but increase the palette of words from which students can draw when crafting pieces of writing.  By using our daily time of experimentation and writerly play to reinforce and build vocabulary skills, I might just be able to achieve that balance I’ve longed for — vocabulary instruction that matters but doesn’t take over my classroom.

How do you do it? How do you teach vocabulary in a way that sticks without taking too much class  time? What strategies have worked well for you in vocabulary instruction? What additional activities could you suggest that could be tucked into Notebook Time? Leave a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find me on Twitter @rebekahoell1. 



  1. Rebekah-
    Thank you for sharing! I recently wrote a series on vocabulary instruction on my blog Many of my beliefs and past practices align exactly with your sentiments. If you don’t mind, I’d like to repost this to my site, as it pertains to what I wrote about. Thanks again!

  2. Love, love, love these ideas! I’ve been struggling to find ways to link vocabulary instruction to writing workshop; I can’t wait to try some of these strategies!

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