5 Questions About Vocabulary Instruction

I’ve deliberated much about how to approach vocabulary instruction this year with the IB juniors. Reflecting on the past few years, I have had an inconsistent yearlong approach to vocabulary, wavering between how many words to cover and how facilitate word mastery.  I wonder how assessment factors in: are students actually deeply learning the words or are they memorizing information to reproduce on a quiz or test?


I turned to Jim Burke’s The English Teacher’s Companion–a staple of the ELA methods college courses–for theory and inspiration.  Burke poses a useful set of focus questions to help teachers evaluate their course objectives:

  • What do you want your students to accomplish in the area of vocabulary?
  • What is the best way to accomplish that?
  • What do you need that you do not currently have to accomplish it?
  • How will you know when you have accomplished it?
  • How important is vocabualry in light of all your other curricular obligations?


Here are my answers:

  • I want to increase students’ functional vocabulary (productive and receptive words they command at will) to the greatest extent possible, without fashioning the study into something drab or punitive.
  • I do not know the best way. I don’t think I ever will. That is part of the intrigue of teaching. In the past, I have emphasized volume over deeper learning. I would introduce a set of 10-20 words and assign various exercises, aiming for 3-5 opportunities to facilitate student mastery. Then, I would quiz them on the set.  I would try to keep the old sets alive by drawing half of the quiz from the previous word sets. I do not think this is the best method anymore for my circumstances.
  • I have everything. I need to create student motivation to learn words for class. My population is driven to learn vocabulary by being successful on the SAT.
  • I believe teachers might overemphasize the importance of deliberate vocabulary instruction. How much is retained? To achieve the rote level of definition retention could be cumbersome. I do not believe that a fervor for vocabulary instruction should compromise potential student reading which also contributes to vocabulary, but also achieves awareness of diction (vocabulary) and syntax, in addition to style and tropes.
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