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Bringing Words to Life, Second Edition: Robust Vocabulary Instruction / Edition 2

Bringing Words to Life, Second Edition: Robust Vocabulary Instruction / Edition 2

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Hundreds of thousands of teachers have used this highly practical guide to help K–12 students enlarge their vocabulary and get involved in noticing, understanding, and using new words. Grounded in research, the book explains how to select words for instruction, introduce their meanings, and create engaging learning activities that promote both word knowledge and reading comprehension. The authors are trusted experts who draw on extensive experience in diverse classrooms and schools. Sample lessons and vignettes, children's literature suggestions, "Your Turn" learning activities, and a Study Guide for teachers enhance the book's utility as a classroom resource, professional development tool, or course text. The Study Guide can also be downloaded and printed for ease of use (

New to This Edition
*Reflects over a decade of advances in research-based vocabulary instruction.
*Chapters on vocabulary and writing; assessment; and differentiating instruction for struggling readers and English language learners, including coverage of response to intervention (RTI).
*Expanded discussions of content-area vocabulary and multiple-meaning words.
*Many additional examples showing what robust instruction looks like in action.
*Appendix with a useful menu of instructional activities.

See also the authors' Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions and Extended Examples, which includes specific instructional sequences for different grade ranges, as well as Making Sense of Phonics, Second Edition: The Hows and Whys, by Isabel L. Beck and Mark E. Beck, an invaluable resource for K–3.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462508167
Publisher: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date: 03/14/2013
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 210
Sales rank: 66,774
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Isabel L. Beck, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Education in the School of Education and Senior Scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center, both at the University of Pittsburgh.

Margaret G. McKeown, PhD, is Clinical Professor of Education in the School of Education and Senior Scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Linda Kucan, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.

Read an Excerpt


Rationale for Robust Vocabulary Instruction

As we start this book, we ref lect for a moment on the roles vocabulary plays in people's lives. A rich vocabulary supports learning about the world, encountering new ideas, enjoying the beauty of language. A rich vocabulary enhances an interview, allows one to see the humor in wordplay, shores up what an individual wants to say, and, especially, wants to write. It is clear that a large and rich vocabulary is the hallmark of an educated individual. Indeed, a large vocabulary repertoire facilitates becoming an educated person to the extent that vocabulary knowledge is strongly related to reading proficiency in particular and school achievement in general.

There is much evidence — strong correlations, several causal studies, as well as rich theoretical orientations — that shows that vocabulary is tightly related to reading comprehension across the age span: in primary grades (Baker, Simmons, & Kame'enui, 1998), in the intermediate grades (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982), in high school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997), and with adults (Smith, 1941). According to Perfetti and Adolf (2012), "... for any encounter with a given test, it is the quality of the reader's word knowledge (form as well as meaning) for the words in that text that is crucial to comprehension" (p. 14).

The practical problem is that there are profound differences in vocabulary knowledge among learners from different ability or socioeconomic (SES) groups from toddlers to adults. Consider that: ??By age 3, there is strong evidence of a gap in vocabulary knowledge for children of different SES groups (Hart & Risley, 1995).

When children enter school the gap continues:

• In kindergarten, sizable differences are found between students (of varying SES) in the number of words known (Baker et al., 1998).

• First-grade children from higher SES groups know about twice as many words as children from lower SES groups (Graves, Brunetti, & Slater, 1982; Graves & Slater, 1987).

• First-grade vocabulary predicted students' reading achievement in their junior year in high school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997).

• High-knowledge third graders had vocabularies about equal to lowest-performing 12th graders (Smith, 1941).

• Once established, differences in vocabulary knowledge remain (Biemiller, 2001; Hart & Risley, 1995; Juel, Biancarosa, Coker, & Deffes, 2003).

Evidence of how strongly students' word trajectories are set early in their school careers is bad news indeed! But a hopeful spin can be put on the bad news by considering the status of vocabulary instruction in the schools. The fact that early differences in vocabulary remain through the school years is understandable if little has been done to change that situation during the school years. So perhaps it is not so much the case that those differences cannot be changed but rather that little has been done to focus on making them change.

A decade ago the available evidence indicated that there was little emphasis on the acquisition of vocabulary in school curricula (Biemiller, 2001; Scott, Jamieson, & Asselin, 1998; Watts, 1995). So, given the evidence, in the first edition of Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002), we summed up vocabulary instruction in the schools as "there isn't much." As to nature of the instruction, at the time of the first edition, our review of the early commercial basal readers in the early 2000s, revealed approaches to vocabulary instruction in the form of traditional dictionary definitions and short exercises, such as a cloze paragraph or matching words with definitions or synonyms. Those of us who taught inservice teachers saw that those were exactly the approaches that teachers initially took when asked to develop vocabulary lessons for class assignments.

Now, a decade later, we need to ask whether those characterizations of classroom vocabulary instruction still hold. Two sources can shed some light on the issue: first, descriptions of vocabulary instruction presented in commercial basal materials published after 2008/2009, and second, studies that describe current classroom vocabulary instruction.

As to the nature of vocabulary instruction in current basals, we have seen a little change in how several of the newer basals provide vocabulary instruction. In some basals, we saw more thoughtful selection of sets of words targeted for instruction. One basal, for sure, and at least one other basal, kind of, provided student-friendly definitions. Occasionally, we saw some follow-up activities that seemed to have a little verve. In one basal we saw a week's words maintained across the week's lessons and brought up in subsequent lessons, neither of which was found in earlier basals. But in other basals we did not find such features, let alone anything that suggested that vocabulary research had undergirded instruction.

Turning to the second source of information about classroom instruction, over the 10 years since Bringing Words to Life was first published, several investigators have dealt with research about what classroom vocabulary instruction is like, and each has concluded that instruction was wanting (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2006; Walsh, 2003). Blachowicz, Fisher, Ogle, and Watts-Taffe's (2006) summary about classroom vocabulary practices documents "less-than-robust classroom practice" (p. 524).

In contrast, it was — and is — our position that the operative principle for vocabulary instruction is that it be robust: vigorous, strong, and powerful in effect. A robust approach to vocabulary involves directly explaining the meanings of words along with thought-provoking, playful, and interactive follow-up. The findings of studies that examined robust instruction has shown it to be effective, not only for learning the meanings of words but also for affecting reading comprehension (Beck et al., 1982; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Perfetti, 1983; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Pople, 1985).

When Bringing Words to Life was first published, virtually all the research that was available was directed toward older students, including the studies we had conducted. Nevertheless, even with the absence of empirical research about the effects of robust instruction on young children's knowledge of sophisticated words, it was with some confidence that we passed along the details of robust instruction to teachers in the primary grades.

Where did that confidence come from? We were able to include in the first edition of Bringing Words to Life some discussion of vocabulary instruction for young children, as we were in the midst of a set of studies involving kindergarten and first-grade children in robust vocabulary. We have now completed three studies, all of which confirmed the viability and potential for teaching young students sophisticated words. We discuss this work in Chapter 4, but to offer an appetizer of sorts — we provide some examples of kindergartners using sophisticated words in the classroom.

These examples from kindergartners, brought to us at a national meeting by an excited director of literacy, were taught the words nuisance, concentrate, reluctant, intimidated, drenched, and glanced through robust instruction. Teachers reported comments such as "He's being a nuisance" and "I can't concentrate." And when several target words were posted, children wrote sentences such as "I was reluctant to ride my bike," "I was intimidated win I went to a new school," "I was drenched becuz I got vre wet," and "I glanced at a car It is pnk an blu."

Our research with implementing robust vocabulary instruction in a variety of classrooms supports our emphasis on the importance of instruction. This is in contrast to an approach to vocabulary development that focuses on learning words from context, which we address in the following sections.

The Role of Context in the Acquisition of Vocabulary Knowledge

The word context is prevalent in both research and practice. In the vocabulary instructional world, context can mean one of two conditions. There are instructional contexts, which are intentionally written to support figuring out an unfamiliar word's likely meaning. The other notion of context is connected to learning new words in the course of reading naturallyoccurring text. From at least the beginning of the 20th century, educational researchers no less prominent than Thorndike associated learning from context via "wide reading" as the way that vocabulary was learned. The importance of wide reading to vocabulary development is supported by more current researchers (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988; Nagy & Herman, 1985) with the logical follow-up that vocabulary instruction should focus on students learning words from context. Few would disagree that wide reading is a major way people learn words, nor would they argue against the need for schools to support wide reading.

To understand the requirements and limitations of learning words from context in the course of independent reading, we consider several assumptions that underlie this view of vocabulary acquisition. First, it is the case that words are learned from context. Second, instruction must focus on learning vocabulary from context because there are just too many words to teach to get the job done through direct instruction. Closely related is the question of how and why certain words are targeted for instruction. Let us examine these issues.

Words Are Learned from Context, but ...

It is indeed true that words are learned from context, but in the course of an individual's development the type of context changes. Early word learning takes place through oral contexts, and oral environments play a role forever, but under most conditions they begin to play a lesser role. Most of the words children customarily encounter in oral language beyond their earliest years, both at home and in school, are words that they already know. Thus, the source of later vocabulary learning shifts to written contexts — what children read. The problem is that it is not so easy to learn word meanings from written context. Written context lacks many of the features of oral language that support learning new word meanings, such as intonation, body language, and shared physical surroundings. As such, written language is a far less effective vehicle for learning new words than oral language.

In terms of learning new words in the course of reading, research shows that it does occur, but in small increments. That is, by no means will all the unfamiliar words encountered in reading be learned, and those that are learned will require multiple encounters with them before learning is accomplished. Studies estimate that of 100 unfamiliar words met in reading, between 5 and 15 of them will be learned (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985; Swanborn & de Glopper, 1999). However, in order for any word learning to occur from reading, two conditions need to be met. First, students must read widely enough to encounter a substantial number of unfamiliar words; that means they must read enough text to encounter lots of words and they must read text of sufficient difficulty to include words that are not already familiar. Second, students must have the skills to infer word meaning information from the contexts they read. The problem is that many students in need of vocabulary development do not engage in wide reading, especially of the kinds of books that contain unfamiliar vocabulary, and these students are less able to derive meaningful information from the context (McKeown, 1985). Thus, calculations of how many words are learned from reading overestimate what occurs for many students.

The Nature of Naturally Occurring Text

Another problematic issue about relying on contexts is that many natural contexts are not all that informative for deriving word meanings. This is because an author's purpose is to tell a story or explain a phenomenon, not to convey the meaning of a set of words. Toward getting a handle on the kinds of contexts found in natural texts, a number of years ago we examined the story contexts for several sets of target words (i.e., words that were targeted to be learned from context) in two basal reading programs (Beck, McKeown, & McCaslin, 1983). From our examination of the contexts from which the target words were to be learned, we speculated that their effectiveness in determining word meaning would fall along a continuum. Along the continuum, we identified four kinds of categories of natural contexts. Below is a description of the four categories, including an example of each that was created to typify those found in the basal programs we examined.

At one end of our continuum are misdirective contexts, those contexts that rather than revealing the meaning of the target word, seem to direct the student to an incorrect meaning. For example:

Gregory had done all he could to complete the task. When Horace approached his cousin he could see that Gregory was exhausted. Smiling broadly, Horace said, "You know there are dire results for your attempt."

Here the context would likely lead a reader to ascribe a positive connotation to dire. The description of Horace as "smiling broadly" might encourage one to believe that Gregory was going to receive good things. And the statement, "You know there are dire results for your attempt" does not preclude thinking that dire refers to something desirable. But such contexts do not make word meaning transparent.

Problems dealing with misdirective contexts are not confined to written contexts nor are they confined to children. Elizabeth Fasulo, a literacy coach from Montgomery County, Maryland, upon rereading Charlotte's Web (White, 1952, p. 162) e-mailed us an "enchanting example of a misdirective context." It's from the following dialogue between Wilbur and Charlotte:

"It's time I made an egg sac and filled it with eggs."

"I didn't know you could lay eggs," said Wilbur in amazement.

"Oh sure," said the spider, "I'm versatile."

"What does versatile mean? Full of eggs?" asked Wilbur.

"Certainly not," said Charlotte.

This example represents the problematic nature of initial encounters with words for young students (and little pigs). Thus, incorrect conclusions about word meaning are likely to be drawn. We hasten to point out that contexts such as the one above are not in themselves wrong, or a misuse of language. The words used communicate the ideas well — if one knows the meanings of the words. But such contexts do not make word meaning transparent. Thus, it is easy to draw incorrect conclusions about word meaning.

Next along the continuum of contexts are nondirective contexts, which seem to be of no assistance in directing the reader toward any particular meaning for a word. For example:

Dan heard the door open and wondered who had arrived. He couldn't make out the voices. Then he recognized the lumbering footsteps on the stairs and knew it was Aunt Grace.

In this example, lumbering has any number of inferrable associations: light, lively, familiar, and heavy would all fit the context, but each would communicate a different meaning.

Further along the continuum we find general contexts, which seem to provide enough information for the reader to place the word in a general category. Consider this example:

Joe and Stan arrived at the party at 7 o'clock. By 9:30, the evening seemed to drag for Stan. But Joe really seemed to be having a good time at the party. "I wish I could be as gregarious as he is," thought Stan.

In this passage, it is easy to infer that gregarious describes someone who enjoys parties. As such, the passage provides clues to the meaning, although the specific characteristics of the word remain unclear.

Finally, we reach directive contexts, which seem likely to lead the student to a specific, correct meaning for a word. For example:

When the cat pounced on the dog, he leapt up, yelping, and knocked down a shelf of books. The animals ran past Wendy, tripping her. She cried out and fell to the floor. As the noise and confusion mounted, Mother hollered upstairs, "What's all that commotion?"

In this example, the reader is led to the meaning of commotion through clues from the description of the scene and by a definitional phrase, "noise and confusion."

Directive contexts are similar to instructional contexts as they both provide information around the target word that supports a reader to infer the meaning. The difference is that instructional contexts do so intentionally and directive contexts are unintentional. That is, an author might use an unfamiliar word in a sentence that happened to have clues to the word's meaning, but there was no intention to provide the clues. (Further discussion of instructional contexts appears in Chapter 7.)


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Table of Contents

1. Rationale for Robust Vocabulary Instruction
2. Choosing Words to Teach
3. Introducing Word Meanings
4. Bringing Vocabulary into the Earliest Grades
5. Instructional Sequences for Later Grades
6. Assessing and Maintaining New Vocabulary
7. Working with Instructional and Natural Contexts
8. Vocabulary and Writing
9. Differentiating Vocabulary Instruction
10. Energizing the Verbal Environment
Appendix. Menu of Instructional Activities


K-12 classroom teachers; reading specialists and coaches; special educators; teacher educators and students in literacy programs. Serves as a text in advanced undergraduate- and graduate-level courses such as Vocabulary Instruction, Word Study, Elementary Reading Methods, and Teaching English Language Arts (6-12).

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