Categorization for Vocabulary Storage

When we work with students, we ask them to identify items in categories,
such as animals, as well as sub-categories, such as farm animals,
insects, birds, reptiles, ocean animals, fish etc.

By working on
categories and sub-categories, we require students to use more
specificity in their storage. Metaphorically, rather than clothing being
all thrown into one giant "hamper", we are asking clothing to be put
into specific drawers. This helps with future recall of words, so that
children do not rely on "thing" or "stuff" when trying to retrieve words
in conversation.

Working on cross-referencing words is also key.  Here is a picture of a chart/matrix my student completed today, cross-referencing words from a word box into Flowers, Fruits and Vegetables according to where they grow (i.e., Tree, Vine, Ground).  Categorization is SO key for vocabulary development and retrieval!

Mnemonics, Test-Taking Strategy

Last week, my fourth grade student, Gabe, needed help memorizing facts for his Iditarod Trail literature test.  Try as he might, he continued to struggle recalling facts using the "read/re-read" method he was attempting.  He knows that our brains are much better at memorizing silly information, so we got SILLY!

He needed to recall that the native people of Alaska like to be called Inuit. So I wrote "it" on a teeny, tiny piece of paper and ate it! He then pointed to my stomach and said, "" with a big grin at the "aha moment".

He also needed to memorize the towns where the Iditarod raced.  He needed to know that Wasila was the "Official Start" and Anchorage was the "Ceremonial Start". We broke down the meaning of official (he was familiar with the pop gun that an official discharges at a running race) so we drew a picture of the "official". Then, Gabe drew the dogs and sled, and we brainstormed the name "Wasila" What sounds like "Was"? He came up with "wasp".  So, to make a silly story, and recall Wasila associated with the start of the official race, we had the W-A-S-p sting the dogs in W-A-S-ila, which made them run.  To memorize Anchorage as the town where the Ceremonial Start occurred, we looked at pictures of ceremonies. Champagne was in many of the images, and he is familiar with the cork popping.  We drew a picture of a champagne glass, then, to recall "Anchorage", we pretended to pour champagne into the A-N_C_H_O_R and visualize the silly scene (liquid spilling from the far side of the anchor as people drank from it). This helped him recall A-N-C-H-O-R-age as the town.

It may take some creativity and a little bit of extra time, but many students really benefit from the use of mnemonics for recall of factual information.

Focus on Word Endings!

I recently worked with a Junior in high school who had failed two recent vocabulary quizzes using her usual method of writing the word on one side of an index card and the definition on the back. 

On these quizzes, she was required to do two things: 1) match the word with the definition; and 2) choose the correct word to fit into a sentence (demonstrating deep comprehension of the word meaning).  Because her memory for rote information is so good, she was 100% accurate with the definitions. She had NO mastery of these words, whatsoever!  She missed every item on the fill-in-the-blank section, because she did not truly understand the meaning of the words (language-dense, confusing definitions). Therefore, she was not able to use the word in context.

Sadly, this is incredibly common!

In addition to working on morphology (i.e., prefixes, suffixes, Greek and Latin roots) on her next set of vocabulary words, we spent a significant amount of time discussing strategies for fill-in-the-blank scenarios.  Not only was I attempting to help her learn the new words in a deeper way, but teaching her metacognitive skills to infer meaning for future words AND teaching her metacognitive skills to more successfully respond to fill-in-the blank tests.

This young lady had such a lack of syntactic awareness, she could not even narrow down her choices.  For example, of the four words, two were verbs, one was a noun and the last an adjective, but she did not recognize that fact. Nor did it guide her in choice-making. Prior to our metacognition work, she made her choices randomly and missed every item.  After our work, she was 50-60% accurate on this section on the next three quizzes, raising her grades from Fs to Cs. (More practice is needed!)

We spent time reviewing the parts of speech, focusing on endings.  For example, words that end in
-ous, -ic, -al will be adjectives. Have the student say the sentence with a common adjective, like "big" and hear although it might sound silly, if it sounds like a sentence that could work.  Words that end in -tion or -ism, for example, will be nouns.

Several great websites have lists of these word endings, so we did not reinvent the wheel, but utilized these resources:,, and


Cutting Edge Vocab Research

New research, published in the journal Developmental Science. by a Florida State University psychology professor, Arielle Borovsky explores how toddlers add new words to early words, such as mama and dada. Dr. Borovsky studies learning disabilities, but in order to better understand what happens when things go awry, she has been studying early vocabulary acquisition.

When a young child has learned the names of several types of fruit, for example, they have laid the foundation, so learning a new word like "lime" or "kiwi" is easier.  By having a category label, like "toy", it is then easy for the child to add words like "doll" or "block". Learning new words, without previously learned related words or category labels takes longer.  Dr. Borovsky explained, "Children start to say words somewhere around their first birthday...but they're not a random subset of adult vocabulary.
They're not learning words like stockbroker or bifocals. That's common
sense, but what's really new is that they are learning these words in
clusters and there might be some words that are easier for children to
learn and some that are harder."

Borovsky and her colleagues studied 32  two-years olds. She examined their existing
receptive vocabulary knowledge by showing images on a screen of
items that are common for toddlers.  Using eye tracking technology, the researchers could identify when the toddlers looked at pictures upon request.  The researchers taught the children six, new, complex words, but they were words already related to known words.  These words were used in five different sentences and paired with pictures on the screen.

When the children had more related words in their repertoire he was more successful and quicker at learning new words than toddlers who had fewer words in that category. For example, if a toddler know five drink words, he was better able to learn a new drink word than peers who knew only two drink types.  "This suggests we could use a
child's own vocabulary to find words that would be easier or harder for
an individual child to learn at a particular age," Borovsky said.

Journal Reference:

  1. Arielle Borovsky, Erica M. Ellis, Julia L. Evans, Jeffrey L. Elman. Lexical leverage: category knowledge boosts real-time novel word recognition in 2-year-olds. Developmental Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/desc.12343

Geography Vocabulary with Google Earth

I was struggling to  help a student who was struggling to recall continent versus country versus state versus city. I wanted to share with you how he mastered the concepts and was able to retrieve the associated vocabulary words in 20 minutes!  We used: a) Google Earth; b) gestures; and c) pencil and paper.

First, like many young students, he needed to understand how he personally fits into the schema that names locations from close (his city) to a bigger "gestalt" (the world.)  Using Google Earth, we honed in on his home, zooming out to see that his house and his neighborhood are part of the city of Baltimore.  We continued to zoom out until the Maryland state boundaries became obvious. We continued out until he could see the United States of America (which we changed to USA so he would not be confused with the "state" level.) Then we could see North America and the other continents, then the world.  He was in awe and wanted to zoom back in. We did this several times, with me emphasizing the labels for each level: "world/earth/globe, continent, country, state, city" and vice versa. Then, I had him join me.  We gestured a small circle (city) and expanded the size of our circle for each term until we were laughing at how huge the world/earth/globe was.

Now, I had to make sure he could retrieve the correct word. It is confusing that two of these concept words start with a "k" sound (continent/country) and two start with a "s" sound (state/city.) But the COOL part is that the number of letters increases as one moves from city to world/earth/globe!  Having him write the words like this helped him to link the concept of the size of the location with the length of the word:

World/Earth/Globe (15 letters)
Continent (9 letters)
Country (7 letters)
State (5 letters)
City (4 letters)
My student and I hope this mnemonic and method will other students struggling to recall the terms in order of size.  Enjoy! - Beth Lawrence, M.A., CCC-SLP

Nicaraguan Surprise

I had the amazing blessing of going to Nicaragua for a
mission trip two weeks ago. The land is beautiful. The faces of so many are
beautiful. The financial poverty is astounding, with many there making less
than a dollar a day in income. The educational need is great. Although there is
a public school system, it seems many parents choose not to send their children
because, “I never went, why should I send my children?” or, “I need my child
here with me picking trash so we can afford to eat this week,” or, even more
surprisingly, “I don’t have money to buy a uniform for my child, so I won’t
send him” (although uniforms are not required, they are encouraged).

I had the opportunity to build friendships with several
families and their children through a local church initiative.  Their physical hunger is being addressed
through the non-profit organization. 
However, I found it interesting to see the hunger the children had to
learn English.  I did not realize that
knowledge of English can be a ticket out of living in the trash dumps for these
children. And English is only taught in private lessons or in private-pay
schools, so very few children have the opportunity. 
What an amazing time we had playing games like Uno and baseball. They had fun looking at photos and videos on my iPad where they found our InferCabulary app.

It was an incredible opportunity for me to
watch how the visual method really did work for someone who did not know any

Our focus has been on how
InferCabulary helps students with learning disabilities, but I was amazed at
how quickly and accurately these girls were at inferring what words like
“boulder” and “perplexed” meant, without my needing to explain or define the
words in their language.  They enjoyed
using their visual inference skills to guess, and kept asking for more words.  

This opportunity made me realize our need to assess the efficacy and
value of using the InferCabulary method with those learning English as a second
language.  We look forward to working
with the program, and remain hopeful that we may get to play at least a small part
in opening doors to a better life for these children.  I know my life was changed by spending time with them.

Taking Vocabulary Instruction to the Next Level

I think we can all agree that vocabulary instruction needs to reach more students at a deeper level. How do we do that? Take it to the next level. 

In Bringing Words to Life, the authors, Beck & McKeown, give an example of instruction for younger grades with the word reluctant from the book A Pocket for Corduroy. In the story Lisa is reluctant to the laundromat without Corduroy.  Here is what Beck & McKeown recommend:

  1. Read the context of the word reluctant.
  2. Give a child-friendly definition of reluctant - not sure you want to do something.
  3. Repeat the word, practicing its pronunciation.
  4. Give examples in context talking about a time you were reluctant to do something.
  5. Ask students what they would be reluctant to do and replies are phrased using the word: I would be reluctant to _____.

Moving beyond the context of the word into real life examples, helps students construct "a meaningful and memorable representation of the word." 

Go a step further and use the InferCabulary method by adding pictures to help students understand what reluctant looks like. In the picture on the right, the girl is reluctant to eat her vegetables - something all kids can relate to.

Taking vocabulary instruction to the next level means taking the word from the everyday mundane classroom exercises and putting into a context that applies to everyday life with examples they will remember - the sillier and funnier, the better!

Toddler Vocabulary Predicts Success

Vocabulary is the best single indicator or intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school. - W.B. Elley

Engaging with your toddler, reading books and talking with them about their world has never been more important. A new study in the journal aptly named Child Development found that children who had good oral vocabularies (what they could express) by age two were better prepared kindergarteners academically and behaviorally than others in their classroom.

They noticed gaps in oral vocabulary began emerging as early as two years of age. That means its important for parents and preschool teachers to spend some time engaging with toddlers in activities that will expand the 2-year-olds' vocabularies. So how do we do this?

Tanya Christ and X. Christine Wang developed a list in Supporting Preschoolers' Vocabulary Learning based on current research. I've paired examples from The Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle.

1.  Point and label - direct the child's attention to the word and say the word. This helps the child connect the word and the image. For example, point to the word "road" on the story page and then point to the picture of the road in the book. As you read the story, point to the words related to the animals the little truck sees: a frog, a sheep, etc. Taking care to point to the words and images, so the child can see the relationship between the words and images.

2.  Ask questions that require a use of the word - As you read a book with your child or students, ask a comprehension question to see if they use the word thereby creating a memory of the word's sounds. For example, "What does a farmer use to carry hay and supplies from one place to another?" and the answer is "a truck."

3.  Ask questions that require using related words to help the child establish a relationship between the vocabulary word and closely related words. You could say, "A truck is a kind of ____ " and vehicle would be the answer. Name some other vehicles that take you from one place to another. What other vehicles would a farmer use?

4.  Give short definitions - explain the meaning in a short, child-friendly definition to help promote understanding. The original story begins, "Horn went 'Beep!'. Engine purred. Friendliest sounds you ever heard." Explain that when an engine "purrs," it means the truck is working well. 

5.  Use extended approaches - provide opportunities for the child to process and use the words in a deeper way. Talk about the animals the little blue truck passed on the road. What other animals could it have seen that aren't in the story? What sounds would they make?  What does a ship see as it sails along? ...and on and on.

The point is as soon as a child can attend to a book, keep in mind that vocabulary is very important to their successes in kindergarten and beyond. Pay particular attention to children at risk. Their parents are struggling to put food on the table and may not have the time to interact with their young ones which may result in smaller vocabularies. Preschools and HeadStart programs should put vocabulary high on their list.

It's a Context Thing

Although using context clues to determine vocabulary meaning is not always effective (not all sentences provide context clues), this is an important skill for students to cultivate for the occasions where authors are kind enough to include them.  We need to overtly teach students to seek out context clues the author may have provided.

Looking before and after the novel
word is a good place to start searching for clues.  Blachowicz and Fisher, authors of Teaching Vocabulary in All Classrooms, suggest several techniques that will help students use context clues that are present before and after the word to determine word meanings.

Sometimes authors provide definitions. For example, "The dermatologist, the skin doctor, identified the problem."  Sometimes they provide clues about what the word is not. For example, Unlike a bicycle, a moped has a small engine. Other times there are location or setting clues, such as, "the mountaineers reached the summit after a brutal all day climb."  Authors sometimes provide a clue when they explain how something happens, like, "She masticated her burger into tiny pieces and swallowed it."  There can be hints within the sentence regarding the function of the word. For example, "in order to keep it from fraying, the worker placed an aglet on the end of the shoelace."  Finally, an author might provide clues about a word by sharing related words or ideas.  For example, At the wake, mourners cried, prayed, and celebrated the life of the deceased.

Learning vocabulary requires time spent reading, review, and overt instruction. Searching for clues within a sentence will not always lead a student to understand novel words in literature. However, when clues are present, only students who realize the power of these clues will be able to successfully determine novel word meaning.

"Twerking" Has Been Around for a While

Vocabulary instruction tends to be humdrum and predictable not only for students, but for teachers, as well. Recently, the Oxford Dictionary added 500 new words to it's pages. If I find this fact interesting maybe my students will, too. 

Think about inspiring your students to have some fun with vocabulary by learning new words recently added and researching why.  For instance, Miley Cyrus didn't invent the term "twerking." It dates back to the 19th century and was originally spelled "twirking." In 1820 it was considered a combination of the words "twitch" and "jerk." The Oxford Dictionary updated the spelling recently to reflect the times. 

Karen Bromley in "Nine Things Every Teacher Should Know About Words and Vocabulary Instruction," suggests that not only should students find new words added to the dictionary, but take it a step further by having them create a list of words they think should be added. Relating vocabulary to daily life, helps students develop a deeper relationship with word meaning.

Bromley, Karen. "Nine things every teacher should know about words and vocabulary instruction." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50.7 (2007): 528-537.