Oh, the Words They Don’t Know

Writing good assessments has always been a challenge for my English 11 PLC.  Crafting smart questions that lead kids towards an answer that will reveal their true knowledge is a tough art to master.  One factor that I’ve found we often fail to consider accurately though is the limitations of student vocabulary.  I’m not talking here about lit or writing-specific jargon.  I’m talking about the sometimes startling shortcomings of many of my juniors’ everyday word awareness.  

A student’s working vocabulary is one element of a broader worldliness that we might call their “Contextual Pool”: All the collective knowledge they have of various elements of the world which accumulates over time and is applied to whatever new text or experience they are confronted with.  Picture this as an actual pool–a nice big concrete in-ground number, or a naturally occurring spring-fed oasis, if you prefer.  In an ideal world, this pool would be constantly filling and expanding and…well, flooding, until it overflowed.  

From preschool all the way through college, a curious learner is naturally adding depth to their pool on an almost daily basis.  Ideally this happens through a combination of independent pursuits (reading the news, exploring diverse popular culture, etc) and challenging, enriching school curriculum.  Students whose learning experiences look like this (with the help of adults who engage them in conversation and point them towards stimulating content and ideas) often reach high school without even being aware that their contextual pool is becoming more of an ocean, allowing them access to foreign shores of information they couldn’t access before.  

The reality for many students however is something more like a puddle beneath the diving board and some dead leaves rattling around the cracked concrete bottom.  We cannot guarantee all students viable access to enriching conversations and reading and pop culture in their home environments, and school alone simply doesn’t engage the curiosity of all of our students consistently enough to fill up an entire pool sufficiently in the brief time that we have them.  Consider how many of your students have almost all sources of enrichment shut off at the spigot the moment school lets out for summer, while many of their peers continue to gain through all sorts of enrichment experiences provided by their varying access to external resources.  

For students who face this sort of contextual desert, it’s awfully hard to get contextual pools filled up to a level that will prepare them for the opportunities they want and deserve access to post-high school.  If new knowledge is most firmly constructed atop prior knowledge, then the contextual pool becomes a frightening predictive measure of how learning gaps will expand for students who lack access or who lose interest in school as they sense over time that the conversation is moving too fast for them.  

On our past few assessments, I’ve had multiple students approach my desk to ask for the definition of words like primitive, primary, and abruptly.  And those are just the terms that we’d written into the questions–my kids have largely learned to just breeze past unfamiliar language in a text itself.  There’s no given set of terms a student should know by high school, but it should certainly concern all of us when fairly mainstream words are perplexing our otherwise-talented readers and writers.

So how do we close the language gap, even though vocabulary may only constitute a partial filling of the pool?

Independent Reading

We practice daily independent reading in my room, which certainly helps over time, but for students who don’t expand that habit into their personal lives, they continue to fall behind their reading peers (and become increasingly likely to have very narrow or inaccurate understandings of important affairs–this really isn’t a “college kid” problem so much as an informed citizen problem).  Reading does, however, remain the most reliable vocabulary builder over time.  The problem is what to do when time becomes short.

The problem isn’t limited to any particular cohort of student either.  Fairly common words–terms they might encounter almost daily in news articles or in any popular culture written for an adult audience–escape my AP Language students at an alarming rate.  

So what do we do?  

Word Hunts and Awards Ceremonies

I started experimenting first with AP Lang–their timeline is much shorter for making fast vocab gains, and also they tend to do whatever you ask them to because they KNOW that timeline is fast collapsing on them.  

So fellow Moving Writers blogger Hattie and I devised a “Word Hunt” project that entailed the students doing exactly that:  Hunting back through semester texts and tracking down 30 words that had been new or mysterious to them.  We then asked them to spend quite a bit of time with each word–a definition, a consideration of connotations (which requires revisiting the context of its original appearance in the text), usage in a sentence, and also a “rating”–how much do you like the word based on your own scoring system.  

This last bit was a big part of what made this successful–words like “skullduggery”, a common but absurd-sounding word that gets tossed about in politics and piracy with equal frequency, were predictably popular.  

The element of “review” wasn’t just fun.  It also made them think about what makes vocabulary useful in the first place.  And it proved useful to us as teachers as well–as much fun as I had listening to them give rave reviews to words that rolled off the tongue, my biggest takeaway from the rating element was that many students don’t read nearly enough texts to judge the commonness of many words.  Terms like “ubiquitous” got extremely bad reviews from my AP readers for startling reasons:  They underestimate, ironically, the ubiquitousness of the word!  (props to Hattie for reading an early draft of this piece and pointing out that I nearly missed this obvious joke in my first draft!)

At the end of the project, we held a big awards ceremony (yes, for the words!) where groups got to nominate their favorite words in various categories (“Most fun to say” “Most useful” etc) including categories they made up.  They had a blast designing simple awards, which we then plastered all over the walls (making new language highly visible EVERYWHERE you look in my room).  The day itself became a great opportunity for me to wander and chat with kids in small groups about what they’d discovered about language.  “Skullduggery” took home ALL the awards in both of my AP classes, but the conversation I found myself having repeatedly was about its relevance.  I had to convince several groups that “most useless” was not a particularly fitting award for a word that’s still so apt in our political discourse that there’s an entire politics podcast by that name!  

Some words receiving the highest of honors this awards season…

The “Word Hunt” has now become a weekly element of our class notebooks, and I plan to continue having awards ceremonies monthly.  Everyone learned volumes from the entire activity, and the prolonged exposure to such a high density of new language is the best way I can think of (share your ideas with me on Twitter!) to make new words stick for them.

Skullduggery displaying several of its tropies–truly the “Titanic” of this awards season…

I’ve got other plans to maximize language acquisition for my learners, including some focused attention on connotation–an element of language that often seems invisible to readers who don’t have large enough working vocabularies to consider reasonable alternatives for word choice.  Anything that adds a bit of depth to the contextual pool is worth the effort.  

In Hattie’s next blog, she’ll be sharing some ideas for broadening contextual pools beyond language and vocabulary–how do we help make sure our students have a broad and rounded awareness of the world around them, including in areas that might not be natural focuses for their curiosity right now?  If you’re interested in the idea of contextual pools and how to fill them fast, keep your calendars open come April–Hattie and I will be offering some webinars to help with practical strategies!  Stay tuned for details!


Got great ideas for vocab building or other Contextual Pool fillers? Tell us about them on our Facebook page or reach out to me on Twitter @ZigThinks


  1. Funny you should mention, Mike. I work with children throughout grades 1`-5. I had a lesson with my first graders on the connection between character attributes and rewards/consequences in stories. I thought I was being all cool by giving them word lists. Turns out they’re not so effective if the kids don’t KNOW the words on the list. Needless to say, we’ve been doing lots of vocab review the last couple of weeks as a detour. Vocab is SO important. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thank you for sharing this! My wife actually teaches elementary as well and we talk all the time about how similar our kids are at opposite ends of the age spectrum! This vocab limitation definitely begins very early for many kids and then compounds itself for 8-10 years until I get them in 11th grade and really see the built-up impact:(

      1. It’s also not helpful when you have kids like mine, who pride themselves on Knowing Lots of Stuff, and who therefore hide it when they Aren’t Quite Sure of Things…

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