July 26, 2016

Why We Need to Grow Student Vocabulary

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The beginning of the Common Core’s discussion about Academic Vocabulary opens with a quote by Marilyn Jager Adams (2009) that reads,

Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought. When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford. (Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix A, p. 32)

On a first read of this quote, most of us will nod our heads in agreement. As you listen closely to student conversations as well, you are likely to feel the full significance of these ideas and the shift toward “acquiring a  rich and varied vocabulary.”

On a recent visit to a fourth-grade classroom, Kim saw students engaged in a lively discussion about the chapter in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2011) where Violet turns into an oversized blueberry. They were looking closely at the opening paragraphs of text that read,

“This gum,” Mr. Wonka went on, is my latest, my greatest, my most fascinating invention!  It’s a chewing-gum meal!  It’s….it’s…it’s…that tiny little strip of gum lying there is a whole three-course dinner all by itself!”  “What sort of nonsense is this? said one of the fathers.  “My dear sir!” cried Mr. Wonka, “ when I start selling this gum in the shops it will change everything! It will be the end of all kitchens and cooking!  There will be no more marketing to do!  No more buying of meat and groceries … .” (p. 90)

And as they considered this passage, their teacher told them to think about words that describe how Willy Wonka was feeling. The students talked with one another and the teacher recorded their ideas on the board as they brainstormed aloud.  Their list included excited, happy, satisfied and confident.

In considering these words and how they reflect what Willy Wonka is feeling, Kim thought about the child whose word choice for describing Wonka was happy. How does her understanding differ from the student who explained, “Yes, Wonka is happy, but more in an excited sort of a way.  I think that is a better choice.”   And how might that be compared to the child who said, “Satisfied feels too final.  He’s still making his gum.  I think the best word up there to describe how Willy Wonka is feeling is confident.”

While this list of words has some level of interconnectedness, it is the subtlety of the difference in word meanings that helps students “build, refine, and modify” their understanding, making a strong case for the Common Core’s emphasis on vocabulary. This example illustrates why most of us nod our heads in agreement when we read Adams’s words but it does not tell us how—how will we help students learn “a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level?” (Anchor Standard 6 for Language, p.25) And how do we get children to see the relationships between words and “nuances in word meanings?”(Anchor Standard 5 for Language, p. 25)

Though the standards are straightforward, the path to arriving there is still muddled by the  reality that instructional time for reading, writing, listening, and speaking must address an array of skills, processes and content that are  in fierce competition with each other. Acknowledging the merit of the destination is just the beginning; we must now figure out how to get there.



Adams, M. J. (2009). The challenge of advanced texts: The interdependence of reading and learning. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Reading more, reading better: Are American students reading enough of the right stuff? (pp. 163–189). New York, NY: Guilford.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards; Glossary of terms. Retrieved from: http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

Dahl, R., & Blake, Q. (2011). Charlie and the chocolate factory (Reprint Edition). London: Puffin Books.



  1. I have a simple method that “appears” to work ie have benefit. It is my Word of the Day plan. If you send me an email I can send you some links as to how I do this. Before CCSS I did not think the typical vocab. lesson of homework and write down dictionary meanings worked (I saw your Literacyhead or other slide show about that and like your ideas, for example the one on bivouac). I also wanted to develop something called a “habit of mind”. Not sure where I picked that term up years back, but it spoke to me about natural learning. I had read and studied a lot about brain development, with a nod to right brain, left brain, though I wasn’t a dyed in the wool believer on all of that (I am more of a whole-brain person). Anyhow by making it “fun” so to speak as in engaging, I was able to get children to invest in paying attention to tier 2 type words, I had them incoporate these words in writing in simple exercises and they eventually appeared in some independent writing, plus I felt I had “demystified” what kids call big or long or hard words, especially those who have decoding issues and give-up on long words. Once they felt confident and “not afraid” of these so-called hard words, they tackled them more readily in their reading. They noticed words in their environment and brought examples of our “words of the day” in use on TV, the radio, another book, etc. Spelling comes into play and also I found a way to incorporate parents/helpers/family in taking an interest and in supporting vocabulary development. I also believe that once children are noticing big words when the teacher models via think alouds how she uses the context-rich clues to come to an understanding, nuanced thinking can be developed in children. It becomes more of a daily habit than homework. The richness of poetry and read alouds also help with this. I also developed a vocabulary game for older elem. students called Stump the Teacher which I believe has very good potential to use in conjunction with reading workshop and the CCSS. I would like to share this with you and connect in general, so hope you will email me, Kim. I am very impressed with the scope of your work.

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