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As reviewed in this blog, the most productive way to teach vocabulary is through generative exercises, those exercises which allow students to connect the new word to prior knowledge, previous experiences, and to generate meaningful uses for the word.

I am happy to announce the first in a vocabulary workbook series titled, Writing with Home: Narrative Vocabulary Workbook: Academic Vocabulary Practice. The workbook provides 8 weeks of vocabulary practice focusing specifically on Tier 2 words, or words that are used in more than one academic discipline. The daily exercises will help students master the vocabulary for discussing and analyzing narratives.

The workbook asks students to learn five words each week. Daily activities look like this:

Monday –

  1. Students look up each word in the dictionary, copy the definition, part of speech and a sentence (or create their own). Finally, students draw a picture or symbol to represent what the word means to them.
  2. Students complete the fill in the blank sentences to practice using the words in context. These sentences are read aloud to someone so the student begins to hear (auditory processing) the words used correctly.
  3. Students ensure they know how to spell each word correctly by either completing a spelling test (visual learners), spelling the words out loud (auditory learners) or “writing” the words using letter tiles several times until the spellings become automatic. Word searches are good for practicing spelling too.

Tuesday –

  1. Students generate responses to sentence frames which illustrate they know what the word means. For example, completing the sentence “My favorite song excerpt to sing is ___” can only be completed correctly if the student understands what the word excerpt means. Likewise, the sentence frame also provides the student the opportunity to connect the word to previous knowledge.
  2. Students read aloud their responses with someone and explain their answers if asked.

Wednesday –

  1. Students review word forms of the vocabulary words. Many words can be used as a noun or a verb, or with a slight spelling change, become another part of speech. By reviewing the various word forms students learn about prefixes and suffixes which create new words, and review how the parts of speech have slightly different meanings and uses. For example, most words that end in –ion are nouns. When a student understands this, he is able to begin learning a new word with the knowledge that it is a noun and go from there.
  2. Students fill in blanks in sentences to show they can use the word forms in context correctly.
  3. Students read these sentences aloud.
  4. Students rewrite some of the provided sentences using the other word forms.

Thursday –

  1. Students generate a response to questions which use the vocabulary word in context and require an explanation. For example, a question such as “Is it better for teachers to make their expectations direct or indirect? Why?” requires that students rephrase the question into an assertion using the vocabulary words and then make an argument for their point of view. This exercise again allows students to use the new vocabulary in context, to connect the new vocabulary to their existing knowledge and prior experiences, and to use the academic language in an academic response.
  2. Students share their responses with another.

Friday –

  1. Students are tested on their knowledge of the new words. The quiz can take many forms. Several types of quizzes are provided here such as matching, cloze passages, and generative exercises. If students know all five words, they move on to the next week. If they are still struggling with the words, it is a good idea to review for another week.

You can create your own lists and have students complete the activities for any five words.

The book is available on Amazon.


I clearly remember the first time I sought out the meaning of a word. I was reading Arundhati Roy’s novel, “The God of Small Things” and was so involved in the world she described that I couldn’t bear to not savor every detail of it.

Usually when reading, if I come across a word I don’t know, I continue to read relying on context clues to help me figure out the meaning. If that doesn’t work, I keep reading calculating that one word is not important enough to stop my reading.

But this time, I stopped, grabbed a dictionary, and looked up the word “viscous.” I read the definition several times before returning to the novel, rereading the sentence with the word in it, making sure the sentence made sense now that I knew the meaning of the word. Then I took a deep breath and restarted reading at the beginning of the paragraph, dropping back into the story, savoring every detail… “Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying flowers” (119).

This is the best way to expand one’s vocabulary, in the context of being thoroughly engaged with a subject where the word is found. So why don’t teachers, tutors, or writing curricula use this method? Many try but end up creating an inauthentic form for a process that should grow authentically from a learner’s engagement.

So should you teach vocabulary?

A large vocabulary is a predictor of reading success http://www.breakthroughtoliteracy.com/index.html?SID&page=df_sc_reading_s, of an increased ability to articulate experience and therefore of higher level critical thinking skills  , and of later occupational success http://litemind.com/top-3-reasons-to-improve-your-vocabulary/. Hence, hoping for a learner to be motivated to search for the meaning of words may not be enough.

When undertaking the systematic study of vocabulary, there are two elements of a curriculum that need to be considered.

1. Is the vocabulary list thoughtful?

2. Are the exercises generative?

Vocabulary List

Many curricula present vocabulary lists as “grade level” but this is a random list of words which researchers have determined children should know by a certain grade level. This is not authentic learning and tends to be rote memorization of words. You may find that your child or student already knows most of the list and therefore this is not time well spent. If time is to be spent on rote memorization or “drill and kill” then it is important that the list be worth the effort.

Choosing vocabulary that are “academic” or “tier 2” guarantees that the study of vocabulary is well spent. Academic vocabulary are those words which are found in many academic subjects. Words such as “classify” or “monitor” are used in a variety of academic subjects and will be pertinent for a learner to know for all subjects http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CE4QFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.sci.csueastbay.edu%2Febsp%2Fliftoff%2Fsummer2010%2Fmaterials%2FDay%25206%2F6.3%2520Academic%2520Vocab%2520Tier%25201-3%2520for%2520NASA%2520Lift%2520Off.ppt&ei=Bt4VUP-pNInHrQHK-4DgBg&usg=AFQjCNEZUA_bNGXiHCRyi2OWAaCBa31vLA&sig2=7aIj58nskPa_of7JsY-3pw. There are many great curricula with tier 2 vocabulary exercises in them to help with the teaching of vocabulary. A quick search will turn up many options.

Generative Exercises

When choosing a curricula for vocabulary, be sure that the exercises are generative rather than associative.

Associative exercises are those drill and kill exercises most workbooks are filled with. These require learners to associate the word with the clues given either in the form of definitions, synonyms, antonyms or sentences with a blank to be filled.

Generative exercises require students to generate meaning using the word. Having learners write their own sentence using the word is the most well-known exercise. Others include students answering open-ended questions with the vocabulary word embedded in the question, assuring that the student understands the context of the vocabulary and can generate correct answers given the question. For example, questions such as “What is the best method for parents to monitor a teenager’s social activities?” allows the learner to express an opinion, hopefully increasing engagement, and a clear answer ensures the learner understands the vocabulary.


When I am tutoring a child who is reading challenging literature, my favorite method of teaching vocabulary combines all of the above. I skim the pages to be read for the week and search for words that are tier 2. I ask students to explain the meaning of the word. If they are able to, I keep skimming. If they are not able to, I write it down on a worksheet and ask them to copy the sentence from the book where the word is used (identifying the word in context), copy the definition that fits the sentence onto the worksheet (familiarizing self with the definition), then write their own sentence using the word (generative exercise). When we meet again in a week, I check the worksheet and review the word orally, asking an open-ended question using the word to ensure the student knows the word. The worksheet I created for this is below.

Teaching vocabulary as part of a writing curriculum is important because as writers, the larger our vocabulary the better able we are to articulate the thoughts we have, the clearer our writing will be, and the more concise our meaning will be. Thoughtful attention to how to teach vocabulary as part of a writing curriculum will ensure that learners are engaged and progressing.

Name ___________________

Words From My Readings

Each week you are to keep a list of words you have read but don’t know the meaning of. Write the word down, copy the sentence the word is from in your readings, look the word up in the dictionary, and copy the definition, including the part of speech.

  1. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

2. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  1. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________