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The Power of Vocabulary with Drs. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown

Blog_WH_Authors1LWe’ve just created an all new literacy-boosting program that supercharges students’ vocabulary by teaching them a variety of robust, Tier 2 words and allows them to interact with each word through multiple contexts.

The program is called Word Heroes and we created it with the help of renowned vocabulary experts Isabel Beck, Ph.D. and Margaret McKeown, Ph.D.

They took time out of their busy schedules recently to sit down and answer a few questions we had for them about their past research and how it led them to become experts in the field of literacy. Below is Part 1 of their interview, which focuses primarily on their experiences with robust vocabulary instruction in the classroom.


Q: What does your research show about the academic performance of children with limited vocabularies?

A: We have seen that children with less-developed vocabularies suffer academically. Principally, this is because their limited vocabularies hold them back from fully comprehending what they read, and thus from learning from their reading.

Students’ lack of comprehension affects their performance not only in reading and language arts class, but also in social studies and science. In content area classes, learning the vocabulary of the discipline is harder, first, because the words used to explain disciplinary concepts may be less well known, and second, because disciplinary concepts are supported in text by general academic words – Tier 2 words – that are less well developed.

However, what we have seen is that students with limited vocabularies are well able to learn new academic words when they are taught in a robust way. That is, when the words are introduced in student-friendly language, exemplified in various contexts, and students are given opportunities to use and play with the words.


Q: What kind of investment in teaching vocabulary will show results?

A: Ah, yes – this is a huge issue! Vocabulary researchers would pretty much agree that the investment needs to start early and be ongoing. Also, there is pretty good consensus that the effort needs to be rather intensive, with at least 20 minutes per day devoted to vocabulary development, and beyond that, alertness to vocabulary and language use throughout the school day. However, there is no exact answer to the question, because intensive, ongoing vocabulary has never been fully tried and evaluated.

So, why do we think that kind of investment is needed? Because it reflects the experience of individuals with high-quality vocabularies – that is, knowing a lot of words deeply. People with high-quality vocabularies have rich experiences with language every day, starting very early in life. They read extensively, and use language thoughtfully.


Q: What are some of the unique ways that you have pioneered vocabulary instruction? In other words, why is it not enough to have students memorize dictionary definitions of new words?

A: When we started our vocabulary work, in the early 1980’s, there was very little research going on in vocabulary. Vocabulary was taught in elementary school mainly through the basal readers, which expected students to learn new words from context that appeared in reading selections. Learning through context is an important, but unreliable, way to learn new words. A word’s context rarely gives clear and complete information about its meaning. In middle and high school, the major attention to vocabulary was – and still is – having students look up words in a dictionary.

After reviewing current methods, we suspected that students needed much more intensive experiences with words to truly learn them, and that these experiences should include direct information about word meaning and many opportunities to use the words. Reflecting on our own experiences with words, we also figured that students needed to have fun with words. Enjoyment is what will lead them to spend the requisite effort to learn new words and may even motivate them to become independent learners.

That is how robust vocabulary instruction was born! We put our minds to creating the most fun you could have with words, while learning how to use them. Instruction begins with considerate definitions using language that students can understand, and follows up with lively activities that make learning to use these words seem like games. 


Q: Why teach sophisticated vocabulary words to young children?

A: Young children’s responses to learning “big words” support teaching sophisticated vocabulary to them. In fact, our experiences show that young children are absolutely capable of learning sophisticated words. And, that same experience demonstrates that kids like to use big words. We have countless examples of primary grades children spontaneously using the big words they have learned. One boy in kindergarten who was learning robust vocabulary told the teacher that another child was being a nuisance, and so he couldn’t concentrate!

Reading instruction focuses on word recognition, so the words that children encounter in their beginning readers are rightfully words that young children know from oral language. This is essential because when beginning readers decode a word, they need to recognize it as a word. To put it another way, as children first learn to read, they are learning a new representation of the language they already know—going from the spoken version to the written version. So, Tier 2 words are not included in beginning reading materials.

Tier 2 words are not common to spoken language either. Research shows that these words are not even used frequently in conversations between college graduates. Tier 2 words are most often found in written materials. Authentic literature that is read aloud to young children is the best source that children have for exposure to sophisticated vocabulary. This is because professional writers use words that enrich a good story. Through read alouds, young children can be introduced to sophisticated, Tier 2 vocabulary via oral language earlier than they might be expected to read these words.

By the way, there is evidence that the earlier in life someone learns a word, the more facile she or he is with that word, later in life.  Of course, there’s a good reason why that is the case—the longer one knows a word the more he or she encounters the word and thus the stronger that word is in memory.


Q: Why teach Tier 2 words (nonspecific, sophisticated) instead of Tier 3 (content area-specific) words?

A: Many Tier 2 words express concepts that children are familiar with but in a more sophisticated or nuanced way. Consider the word "bestow," which is related in meaning to the word "give." However, it is too simple to say that these words are synonyms because the more formal word bestow is a specific type of giving, usually related to royalty bestowing honors and titles or clergy bestowing blessings. Learning the word bestow, helps children build on their understanding of the original concept.

In contrast, Tier 3 words do not often connect to known concepts. Often, these are technical terms specific to content areas -- words like isotope, lathe, filibuster and being limited to these contexts, such words are encountered in general reading with low frequency. Because Tier 3 words are often connected to content-area concepts, they are best dealt with within their disciplines. For example, filibuster can’t be well understood without an explanation of how it is used in legislative procedures. As such, filibuster is best taught within a social studies unit about how laws are made, specifically how legislators attempt to prevent a law from being made.


Q: Unlike Tier 3, words, students are likely to encounter Tier 2 words in multiple contexts. What is the importance of thinking about words across different contexts?

A: Thinking about words across different contexts is key because no single context will reveal everything you need to know about a word’s meaning. In truth, every time a word is used, its meaning is just slightly different. To be ready to meet the word in a new context, a learner needs to be armed with lots of information about how that word is used.

Another but related issue is that when meeting a new word, learners often over generalize and include the context as an essential part of a word’s meaning. One example we encountered had to do with the word potential, as in potential homebuyers. Some students concluded that potential must mean “the ability to buy something.” This definition was over-extrapolated from the context because there is no necessary link between potential and buying.  So, students need a lot of contexts to sort out which features characterize the word, and which just happen to be part of the context.


Q: What's your favorite word?

A: (Isabel Beck) I don’t have a favorite word, but I do have words that I am partial to. In 4th grade I learned what earnest meant, and I liked the characteristic of someone who was earnest. Back then I was surprised that a lot of other people had learned the word earnest, too, since I never heard it used before. I never thought of earnest as a person’s name until many years later I encountered the play The Importance of being Earnest. Imagine a play written about someone who is earnest and Earnest.

I love the word awe. The way it is said and sounds relates to what it means.  When you say it, you open your mouth in a way that is similar to how one might look in the presence of something or someone for which you feel awe. Currently awe might have lost its power since, at present, many people, particularly young people, describe so many things as awesome.

When I come across a word that I don’t know, if I can’t ask someone who is in the room what it means, I usually look it up. But that isn’t the way I learned ninja.  I thought ninja was a made-up name for characters in certain toys and games.  Very recently my young grandson informed me that ninjas were actually Japanese warriors.

A: (Margaret McKeown) I think this is a very fluid concept! It often happens that I run into a word I hadn’t thought of in a while, and begin to favor it or I find a word used in a new way and I adopt that. Currently, a favorite is avatar.  This is because I learned that this word was not invented to describe animated game-players in virtual reality, but rather it is a word from Hindu, originally used to describe a person whose form a god or goddess had taken. So, it means, basically, a person or image that embodies a concept, and comes from a root meaning to cross over or pass through.

Related Interview: The Power of Comprehension with Drs. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown


Word Heroes—A Brand New Literacy Program

Click the image below to learn more about Drs. Beck and McKeown's brand new literacy program!