Vocabulary Learning Hierarchy: My approach to helping students independently learn vocabulary


If you haven't read my previous blog post (Vocabulary Learning Strategies: Increase independent word learning in school-age children), then go read that first! It will provide a foundation for this post!


Okay, so we've established vocabulary is important. Right? Right.



So how do we help our school age students be independent learners of vocabulary?

💪🏼 Make sure our students have a robust set of vocabulary learning skills that will enable them to access and use complex, academic language like their typically developing peers.


What kind of strategies do they need to access the curriculum and meet grade level standards? Glad you asked! 👇🏼


Before I start my vocabulary instruction, I establish a baseline for what skills my students report to use when figuring out the meaning of unknown words. Often, the strategies they report (if any) are "ask a teacher/friend" or "sound it out." These strategies alone will not support a student in being an independent learner.


Why do I take this baseline data? Well, in addition to writing goals to measure outcomes from the application of these vocabulary learning strategies (e.g., comprehension of a grade-level text), I believe it is every bit as important to write metacognitive/metalinguistic goals for how students will explain word learning strategies AND apply them in context. I view this in similar fashion to the way I write fluency goals-- I write goals for verbally explaining strategies and also for % dysfluencies per 100 words (i.e., the outcome of applying the strategies).


If our students do not have these independent word learning strategies and have to ask what a word means every time they need help (and that is assuming they even ask), their ability to learn vocabulary like their peers is going to be severely impacted. A gap in vocabulary will grow at an eerily quick rate. Additionally, there may not always be a person that is accessible to ask or it may be inappropriate to ask (e.g., during a test). We have to help our students increase independence in word learning.


After I establish that aforementioned baseline of skill awareness, I begin my vocabulary instruction & teach students this hierarchy to facilitate independent word learning:


1️⃣ Morphemic analysis

2️⃣ Contextual analysis

3️⃣ Cognate awareness (for my ELLs)

4️⃣ Dictionary use

5️⃣ Ask someone


First, I teach my students to "look for words or word parts they already know" inside the unknown word (morphological awareness).

Then I teach them to "keep reading" and look for hints (context clues) or definitions (appositives).

*I work with many ELLs, so I also teach cognate awareness to help them identify words that sound similar & have the same meaning across languages.

If the those strategies don't work, I teach my students to consult a dictionary, if available. Even those of us with typically developing language use a dictionary when our independent word learning skills can't help us.


So, yes. Successfully using a dictionary (i.e., finding and identifying meaning and transposing it into context) is a skill that you may need to work on.


If the student continues to struggle after all of those independent attempts, I teach them that, at that point (if available) it is appropriate to ask for help.

Again, you may need to practice/role play asking for help. Many students do not ask for help, although they need it.


Why do I teach these skills and in this order? I teach this hierarchy because it prioritizes independent word learning skills, but also offers other options to help identify word meaning after independent efforts were not effective.


Do I want my students to default to asking for definitions if they don't know a word? No. I don't want that to be their first (or only) attempt at finding word meaning. BUT I do want them to know that it is okay to ask for help once they have tried all of their independent strategies.


I think it does our students a disservice if we ONLY focus on strategies like morphological awareness or context analysis. The truth is... those strategies, even together, won't help students learn all new words. Sometimes explicit definition by dictionary or another person is necessary and our students need to know that.


This is why I teach the hierarchy.


Start with your independent strategies. If you can't figure it out, then ask for help.


When students learn this entire hierarchy-- they will be able to be independent and efficient learners. They learn how to try themselves first and ask after. All of these skills are important-- but the order in which they are used is what makes the difference.



What approach do you take to vocabulary instruction with your school-age children?

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