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High School Vocabulary Instruction for the Utah Core: Grades 7-12. Emily Sell, MEd Jordan School District. Overview . Context and Background. What we can avoid in vocabulary instruction. Research based vocabulary principles. Ideas for how to teach vocabulary: Morphology

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high school vocabulary instruction for the utah core grades 7 12

High School Vocabulary Instruction for the Utah Core: Grades 7-12

Emily Sell, MEd

Jordan School District

  • Context and Background.
  • What we can avoid in vocabulary instruction.
  • Research based vocabulary principles.
  • Ideas for how to teach vocabulary:
        • Morphology
        • Semantic Word Analysis
        • Vocabulary Pictures
        • Word Sorts
        • Student Chosen Vocabulary Words
context and background
Context and Background
  • I’m a lover of words, and I retain them easily.
  • Teaching vocabulary so that it sticks is hard, and as young teacher, I was desperate.
  • Took classes as professional development.
  • I tried what I learned and it seemed to work.
vocabulary instruction is not
Vocabulary Instruction is not…

1. Having students look up words in the dictionary so they can copy the definition down verbatim even though they still don’t know what it means.

  • Supercilious: Having or showing arrogant superiority to and disdain of those one views as unworthy.


Supercilious: Egotistical or full of one’s self.

  • Vocabulary.com
vocabulary instruction is not1
Vocabulary Instruction is not…

2. Overwhelming students with 50 new words per week especially when they couldn’t possibly retain everything.

  • For the novel A Separate Peace, I used to teach about 100 words for a unit that only took a few weeks.
  • Last time I taught it, I focused on only 11 words.
vocabulary instruction is not2
Vocabulary Instruction is not…

3. Telling students the definitions to words without giving them adequate practice using them.

  • Expect students to be actively involved in their vocabulary learning. Don’t do all the work for them.
vocabulary instruction is not3
Vocabulary Instruction is not…

4. Believing that because a student does well on a vocabulary test that knowledge transfers immediately and remains permanent.

  • Many students can fake their way through a quiz or test by parroting back information.
  • Constant practice with the words helps students retain words better.
vocabulary instruction is not4
Vocabulary Instruction is not…

5. Getting through a vocabulary unit so we can check it off our list.

  • Teaching students vocabulary words that last should be our goal—not blowing through a vocabulary unit or workbook.
  • It’s nice to check it off, but have we really accomplished something?
research based vocabulary principles
Research Based Vocabulary Principles

1. Use student friendly definitions that students have paraphrased and simplified.

  • A simple meaning of the word is far easier to work with over a strange or obscure definition copied down from the dictionary.
  • Students are more likely to use words that are simplified and make sense to them.
research based vocabulary principles1
Research Based Vocabulary Principles

2. Allow students active engagement in their vocabulary learning.

  • Students need active engagement with the words to learn them deeply.
  • E.G. Hand and face gestures, pantomimes, drawing, talking in small groups.
  • Students learn more when they’re not looking at a word passively.
research based vocabulary principles2
Research Based Vocabulary Principles

3. Give students a reasonable amount of words to work with (no more than 5-7 per week).

  • A major problem in vocabulary teaching is that we teach too many words at one time.
  • For deeper vocabulary learning, teach a few.
  • You have to make choices in what words to teach. Choose words that are high utility and can be incorporated easily in your students’ vocabulary(i.e. Physiognomy is a cool word, but no one uses it anymore).
research based vocabulary principles3
Research Based Vocabulary Principles

4. Teach students words for which they already have a concept.

  • The easiest words to teach are those for which students already have a concept.
  • You can sell the new words as a sophisticated and fancier way to use a word the student already knows.
  • Teaching mortified or chagrined for the already familiar concept embarrassed.
research based vocabulary principles4
Research Based Vocabulary Principles

5. Give students plenty of opportunities to practice, practice, practice!

  • Have students practice using the words in context.
  • Allow students to work with peers to practice the words orally.
  • Practice with word sorts or make a word wall as a reminder.
idea for teaching vocabulary 1 morphology
Idea for Teaching Vocabulary #1: Morphology

Teaching morphology (the study of roots) to students is beneficial because when you teach a root, you give the students the meaning to hundreds of words in the process.

idea for teaching vocabulary 2 semantic word analysis
Idea for Teaching Vocabulary #2: Semantic Word Analysis

Semantic word analyses can be used to teach students the nuances of words and really get them thinking about how one word differs from another.

In my students’ case, their semantic word analyses led to a powerful discussion about the way we tend to view people that we don’t know. This worked into background for the complicated themes and issues of To Kill a Mockingbird.

idea for teaching vocabulary 3 pictures
Idea for Teaching Vocabulary #3: Pictures

I like to use pictures as often as I can when teaching vocabulary so that my students can have a visual that aids them in remembering what the word means.

I have students draw three pictures/contexts where the word could be used and then include the meaning of the word on the back of the page. I often hang up their pictures on a classroom word wall so students can refer to them later.

ideas for teaching vocabulary 4 word sorts
Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary #4: Word Sorts

Once you’ve taught students a word, you can use word sorts to help review the words to ensure students remember them and to deepen understanding.

I like to have my students divide the words we’re working with into two separate piles—letting them choose what two categories in which to put the words.

After talking about the sorts as a class, I have them re-sort the same words into two different categories without using any categories that we talked about as a class. This forces my students to think about the words in a different way each time.

ideas for teaching vocabulary word sorts
Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary: Word Sorts
  • Chided
  • Surreptitiously
  • Mortified
  • Chagrined
  • Lucrative
  • Insatiable
  • Gouged
  • Prodigious
  • Defunct
  • Insidious
  • Tipple
  • My students sorted these words into categories like helpful/non helpful, descriptive/non-descriptive, scary/ not scary, good/bad, loud/ not loud describes ninjas/ doesn’t describe ninjas.
ideas for teaching vocabulary 5 student chosen words
Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary #5: Student Chosen Words

Research supports the fact that students retain words better when they get to choose the vocabulary words they study.

To do this, I have students choose one or two words out of a few chapter selection of the piece we’re reading. I have each student put their word and its definition on the board, and then they vote as a class for their three favorite words. With my two other classes voting, we have nine vocabulary words to work with.


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2005). Choosing words to teach. In Hiebert, E.H. & Kamil, M.L.(Eds.), Teaching and Learning Vocabulary Bringing Research to Practice (209-222). New York: Routledge.

Bromley, K. (2007). Nine things every teacher should know about words and vocabulary instruction. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(7), 528-537.

Greenwood, S.C. and Flanigan, K. (2007). Overlapping vocabulary and comprehension: Context clues complement semantic gradients.The Reading Teacher 61(3), 249-254.

Kieffer, M.J. & Lesaux, N.K. (2007). Breaking down words to build meaning: Morphology, vocabulary and reading comprehension in the urban classroom. The Reading Teacher, 61(2), 134-144. 

Rosenbaum, C. (2001). A word map for middle school: A tool for effective vocabulary instruction. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 45(1), 44-49.