Teachers at Work

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Lori Wilfong on the Do's and Don'ts of Vocabulary Instruction

In this interview, Lori Wilfong, author of Vocabulary Strategies That Work — Do This, Not That!, describes some of her pet peeves about traditional vocabulary instruction and gives us some fresh ideas about how teachers can enliven their practice with student-generated definitions, word walls, and word jars.

Visual Thesaurus: Some people might see the title of your book, "Vocabulary Strategies That Work: Do This – Not That!" and ask, "Why do teachers need strategies for teaching vocabulary? Why don't we just tell students to read more?"

Lori Wilfong: That is a great question and one I get from teachers often. In my work with different school districts and in my own teaching as a middle school teacher in East Los Angeles, I found that yes, wide reading is the number one way to build a student's vocabulary, but there has to be an intent and a purpose that the teacher sets for the students. It's one thing to say, "OK, great, we're going to have our self-selected reading time and read." But, at the same time, we still have to meet the curriculum that is set for us. When you look at the Common Core State Standards, there is vocabulary that students do need to learn, and that might be a different set of words than those from their self-selected reading. So, having the strategies available to teach certain words will always be valuable.

VT: In your current position as a professor of education, I'm sure you visit a lot of classrooms and see a lot of vocabulary instruction practices taking place. What's on the top of your vocabulary instruction pet peeve list, if you were to make one? 

LW: The sort of "nails on the chalkboard" for me is when I walk into a classroom on Monday and the teacher is passing out the twenty words that the students need to learn for the test on Friday. And then the teacher passes out the dictionaries, and that was the vocabulary instruction for the week — having the students look up the words.

There still is merit to looking up definitions. Being able to know how to use a dictionary effectively is great, but what we have found through research is that you can't just give a list of words anymore. You have to provide context. If I'm teaching science, the definition I need a student to identify and learn is pretty specific.

And then the second part is, having worked with English language learners, if I hand an English language learner a dictionary and say, "Look up these words," they often find themselves looking up words that are also in the dictionary definition. It becomes this horrible non-treasure hunt, where they're looking up word after word and never really arriving at an understandable definition.

So, if there was that one pet peeve, it's the convention: here are your 20 words on Monday, look up the definition, use it in a sentence, and then take the test on Friday.

VT: I notice that you're talking about teachers handing out paper-bound dictionaries. Is that what you're seeing in classrooms or are they going online?

LW: Both. And I think there are some people who have definitely transitioned electronically. I think that is fantastic because, first of all, our students are used to this and they're good at it or getting better at finding what it is that they really like when they're looking online. I'm finding a lot of sites, like the Visual Thesaurus, have graphics. I love the ties between the words in the VT word maps that make vocabulary come alive, whereas a traditional dictionary, even though it's something that you and I might have been used to, it's not what our students are used to. I just don't see the paper dictionary often being used effectively. It's just handed out or it's sitting in the corner of the classroom collecting dust.

VT: In your book, you present a "Do this, not that" two-column chart that you use as a framework for vocabulary advice for teachers. One of the things I noticed on your "Do This" list was that students need to come up with their own definitions for words. Why is that important?

LW: Absolutely. When you are looking up a word, very few of us are going to remember a long definition, especially if it has bigger words in it. And so, what I'm always prompting teachers to do and what I'm prompting students to do is to come up with a definition that is three words or less. If you're shrinking it down to three words or less, chances are you're using words that are going to be slightly easier than the word that you're actually defining, so you're putting it into language that makes sense to you.

I find it's a challenge for students to do this. They just want to copy the dictionary definition. But I'm having them transform the process from "OK, this is what the official person is telling you what this word means" to "this is what the word means to me." It gives them a sense of ownership of the word.

VT: While we're still talking about the language of dictionaries versus the language of students, I noticed something in your "Not That" column: 'don't speak to kids with kid language, and don't allow students to speak kid back to teachers.' What is kid language and what's wrong with it?  What's the opposite?  Adult language?  How do you have students transition from kid language to adult language?

LW: Oh, what a great way of putting that. The teachers I work with right now are mostly in urban districts around Cleveland, where I live. We find that the teachers, a lot of them, are the most educated persons with whom our students come into contact. Teachers tend to take their own language and make it comprehensible to students, and that's great. But at the same time, you want to present yourself as the scholar that you have gone to school for multiple, multiple years to be. That's number 10 on "Do This, Not That": asking students to speak the language of the discipline.

The Common Core emphasizes using the academic language of the discipline. If I'm going to expect students to speak like that, then I need to model that language for them.

Now, there isn't anything wrong with kids' language. There is the informal register that you would use when you talk with friends at lunch, but when you come into my classroom, I do expect you to be in the more formal register. Students need to learn to talk like the scholar of whatever discipline we are studying — history, science, math or language arts.

VT: Let's look at some of the strategies you address in your book. How can word walls be used effectively?

LW: I think a lot of us set up our word walls with really great intentions. For the first couple of weeks, they're up there and we're adding words to them, and then it just dies out over the course of the year. I think you have to decide what is the purpose of my word wall? 

As a language arts teacher, I like to concentrate on words that students could use in their writing, usually adjectives that could make their writing more exciting. As students were reading, I would prompt them to grab a note card or a sticky note and to write down a word that they came across that they thought would be a good addition to our word wall. At the end of independent reading, I would ask them to nominate a word to go up on the word wall, and then we would put it there.

Make the use of your word wall intentional. Answer the questions, "How am I going to use my word wall?  How am I going to make that apparent to my students and make them involved in it, as well?" That's my favorite thing about a word wall, is you get a stack of note cards and a Sharpie and congratulations, you can have a word wall. You don't have to purchase anything because the best ideas for the word wall really do come from your students.

VT: Along the same lines, tell us about word jars.

LW: It's so fun. We labeled three jars in each classroom: words that warm my heart, words that make me feel smarter, and words that tickle my ears. If students came across a word that fit into one of those three categories, they would write down the word, where they found it and why they're nominating it to go into the word jar.

The words that the students put in were fantastic. That was a school-wide project because I did literacy specialist work in multiple classrooms and then the word jar words were used to create a school-wide word wall, based on what came out of the word jars.

For example, a word that tickles my ear is ooze. I would have students who would write that down and say where they found it and what amused them about it. I think that's just one of those ways that you can help create students to become wordsmiths, just letting them notice language in fun ways.

It doesn't always have to be, "Today, we are going to study this word." It can be, "While you're reading, make sure that you're paying attention to the choices that authors make with words because that's going to help us notice new vocabulary."


Lori G. Wilfong began her career in East Los Angeles, CA, teaching English as a second language to middle schoolers for the Los Angeles Unified School District. This sparked her interest in motivating adolescent readers and led to positions in urban and rural schools as a literacy coach and literacy specialist. Upon completion of her doctoral degree in Literacy Education from Kent State, Wilfong began her current position in the Middle Childhood Education and Curriculum & Instruction programs. She remains an active consultant in several area urban school districts.


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Comments from our users:

Monday April 1st 2013, 2:21 PM
Comment by: Alison T. (Charlotte, NC)
Going to try the word jar technique at my school!

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