The Magic of Words


Here’s some literacy inspiration for your day....

One day in a Barnes and Noble, Malcom, a young man, was approached by a middle-aged woman who invited him to join her book club. He accepted the invitation and was soon the only male in a room full of women discussing books.

What's interesting about that? At the time he was a popular football player at University of Georgia and now he's a wide receiver for the Patriots....but that's not what inspires me. Here it is - he could only read at the junior high level when he entered college. He didn't develop an interest in reading until college and now he is a children's book author.

Malcolm Mitchell self-published his own children's book, The Magician's Hat about a magician "whose trick is showing children the magic power of reading."* His book is somewhat autobiographical and an inspiration to children. Malcolm said football was easy for him, but reading required work.

We know that two-thirds of students in the U.S. struggle with reading
and vocabulary is the building block of reading comprehension.

Literacy is important to us and we'd like to inspire kids across the country to find the magic of reading by tapping into the power of a strong vocabulary. We found that using language to teach words isn't working, so we use images in different contexts to help children learn vocabulary and then add the language.

Be a magician for your students and introduce them to InferCabulary Pro! Opening up a world of words can magically open up a world of books.

To see how InferCabulary works, view our demonstration at

Questions?  Feel free to send us a question by e-mail at or call 410-960-2444 and ask for me, Deena Seifert.

Deena Seifert, M.S., CCC-SLP
InferCabulary Pro

Vocabulary Must "Fit" Into Their World

So often we think of vocabulary in the context of a definition, but we need to be moving beyond regular vocabulary instruction and think bigger!

"Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge. The knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how the word fits into the world." (Stahl, 2000)

How do we "fit" vocabulary into a student's world. I have some ideas:

Student-friendly Definitions.  Packing definitions with words they have not yet learned serves no purpose. Creating student-friendly definitions that they can really own and understand puts them one step closer to really understanding a word.

Multiple Exposures.  We typically put a word on a student's vocabulary list and then that student rarely sees the word on a list again. Research indicates students begin learning a word, say "timid" in Grade 5, and need to continue learning that word until Grade 7. Continually exposing students to these words in a variety of contexts is important to vocabulary development.

Direct Instruction.  Too often we expect to give kids a list of words and activities and by the end of those activities, they should know the words. Biemiller (Perspectives, 2000) makes the case that direct instruction on specific words is important to vocabulary learning. "Planned (and contextualized) instruction is needed" and is especially true in the pre-reading years.

Start Earlier.  Too often we wait until kids are reading in Grades 3 and 4 before we begin vocabulary instruction, but the fact is children begin learning vocabulary much earlier. We should be "fitting" vocabulary instruction into the pre-reading years of

daily instruction.

Computer Technology.  Let's face it - kids today are tech savvy and know their way around a computer or tablet. If we want vocabulary to fit into their world, educational technology (edtech) needs to play a role. If the program is good, it engages the learner, broadens their word base and helps them learn words deeply in a variety of contexts.

Keeping vocabulary instruction fresh, changing up the way we present new words and "fitting" words into their lives rather than having them "fit" into our time-worn methods is how we improve vocabulary knowledge and ultimately reading comprehension skills.

We've developed InferCabulary Pro, a web-based visual program that provides user-friendly definitions using multiple images in a variety of contexts in a fun and engaging way.  Students are telling us we're "fitting" vocabulary instruction into their world in a way that works.

Does Vocabulary Matter?

Yes! Vocabulary DOES matter!

  • Research has show that kids need to understand 98% of the words they read to understand what they are reading.
  • Children who develop a rich vocabulary tend to be deeper thinkers, express themselves better and read more. Improving language and literacy skills early in life will help them be more successful academically and communicatively.
  • Successful communication is dependent upon a good vocabulary base. Using the right words when talking and "saying what you mean" makes you a more effective communicator.
  • Having a good vocabulary to draw from can help you write more effectively. Students need to use a more formal tone when writing and to do that, they need a richer vocabulary.

This holiday season treat yourself or someone you know to a better vocabulary. Visit to learn more about our new visual learning tools. A basic subscription is on sale for just $99 (20-students) and all subscriptions are 33% off through December.

Check out our InferCabulary Pro demo. Questions? email us at or call 410-960-2444.

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Frequency Matters in Vocabulary Instruction

We've gotten into the habit of teaching a vocabulary with a "one and done" practice. Teach a set of words and then move on to the next list the following week. In fact, we should really be re-teaching vocabulary words, because frequency matters. When studying third graders, researchers found that "semantic and lexical knowledge accrues over time" (McGregor, Shane & Ball, 2007).

In order to improve the depth of vocabulary knowledge, repeated exposure to Tier 2 words is a must. Multiple exposures, allows a child to add more features and contexts to the words they are learning. It helps them to store words neurologically and continually refine that storage to include synonyms, word parts and other semantic features. Continually building on the knowledge of a word helps a child internalize the meaning and own it.

We need to change our vocabulary instruction model from a "one and done" to a continual learning cycle. Robust vocabulary instruction should be a continually evolving process that keeps students engaged while reinforcing their word knowledge.

Fostering Independent Vocabulary Skills

We all have a lot of tools in our vocabulary tool boxes as teachers and speech language pathologists, but one of the most important tools isn't necessarily in the box. It's in how we teach vocabulary. Helping students foster an awareness of how to independently learn new words they are reading is just as important as learning word meaning.

Motivate your students to grow their vocabulary skills and they will be better learners for it.

Talk in front of your student, doing a Think Aloud, so they can see how you process new words. Going through the process aloud you can talk about how your figure out the parts of the word and the context. Where might you have seen that word before? What examples can you think of and how would you use it in a sentence. If someone asked me, what would I say the definition of that word is?

Then have your students practice. Have your class work together to figure out the meanings of new words, so students can model for each other how the process works. It requires more interactions with your students and class, but isn't that what teaching is all about?

Top 5 Reasons Why Vocabulary Matters

There has been a big push the last 10-15 years to improve a student's vocabulary skills, but do you know why? Here are the top 5 reasons why vocabulary is so important:

1 It Improves Reading Comprehension. Research has shown that kids need to understand 98% of the words they read to understand what they are reading. Improving vocabulary skills will improve their understanding of novels and textbooks.

2 It's Important to Language Development.  Children who develop a rich vocabulary tend to be deeper thinkers, express themselves better and read more. Improving language and literacy skills early in life will help them be more successful academically and communicatively.

3 Communicating Ideas. Successful communication or "saying what you mean" is dependent upon a good vocabulary base. Using the right words when talking, makes you a more effective communicator.

4 Expressing Yourself in Writing. Having a good vocabulary to draw from can help you write more effectively. Students need to use a more formal tone when writing - not conversational language - and to do that, they need a richer vocabulary to tap into those words we don't use when we speak.

5 Occupational Success. Researcher Johnson O'Connor found that "a person's vocabulary level is the best single predictor of occupational success."* Success in the business place depends on your communication skills.

We've developed visual vocabulary tools to improve students' vocabulary skills K-12. Our iPad apps (InferCabulary and WordQuations) are on the APP Store and InferCabulary Pro will be ready for sale at ASHA 2016 in Philly. Take a minute to check them out.


Deena Seifert, M.S., CCC-SLP

Co-founder, Communication APPtitude LLC

Students Creating Definitions

How do you define a word so that others understand? Students are expected to know how to do this, but many struggle to create definitions. They've "miss" the lesson either figuratively or literally. When working on definitions with students, I lay out 3 post it notes like this - only I use pictures instead of words for younger students.

I ask the student to say something about the word using guidelines from the post it notes. For example define the word KITTEN.

A kitten is a kind of thing is it? (category) animal/pet/baby animal. 
What does it do? (function) purrs, drinks milk, meows
What does it look like? (attributes) four legs, whiskers, tail, baby cat, different colors of fur

Practicing with a variety of nouns, now the student has a "road map" for how to define a word.  Helping students define/describe words is the first step in improving oral expression and a stepping stone to other explanations. It also helps them craft definitions for words in a way they can understand and store the information for future use.

Think-Alouds in Vocabulary Instruction

It's not a new term, but it was new to me - Think-Alouds. It's just like it sounds - "think aloud." It was first used by an engineer with IBM to think through the steps the user would take to use what they were building giving insight into using the product.

In education it's a strategy that teachers and speech language pathologists can and do use to give students insight into how we learn and know a vocabulary word at a higher level of understanding (metacognitive level). The Think-Aloud procedure gives students information about what we find interesting and important about a word. It helps them see how we think through the process of figuring out the meaning of a word. I think many of us use this technique with our students, but didn't always know the name for it.

An example of a Think-Aloud would go something like this. We are reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird together when we come across the word imprudent when describing one of Atticus' first clients.

"...were imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses..."

Me:  "Have you ever heard the word prudent? Do you know what it means?"

Student: "Yes, I've heard the word, but I don't know what it means."

Me:  "Prudent describes doing something good for yourself, like stretching before you exercise, or drinking water instead of soda. Prudent would be choosing a healthy snack instead of a donut. Can you think of an example of prudent when you are listening to your music that is too loud?"

Student: "I could turn it down, so I don't hurt my ears."

Me: "Right. The prudent thing to do would be to protect your hearing by turning your music down when you are listening with your earbuds. This passage uses the word imprudent. What does "im" do to the meaning. In this case "im" means "not." So imprudent means..."

Student: "...not prudent. So in To Kill a Mockingbird they did something that was not good for them?"

Me: "Yes. What is this passage about? What did the Haverfords do in this passage that got them in trouble?"

Student: "They sent a blacksmith to hurt someone because of a horse and it got them in trouble."

Asking questions and thinking through the process aloud with your student helps them learn how to do the same as they are reading and encountering new vocabulary. Using think-alouds can help students tackle new vocabulary to boost understanding. Research has shown the more engaged we are with students while learning vocabulary, the higher their level of understanding.

Previewing Texts for Reading Comprehension

Students in my private practice walk through the door with newly assigned literature texts every week. Many of them have never encountered the book they are reading before the book was placed in their hands. Getting a student ready to read a new text is something I enjoy and there are a lot of resources available today that makes that job easier.

Read a text summary
A book jacket or a review on Goodreads or is a great way to preview a text with a student. This gives them the context of the story and sets the stage for what is to come. After reading the summary, I ask some simple questions. What do you think the main character is like? How will they solve the problem mentioned? How do you think it will end? 

Next, I like to visit Youtube with the student and find a 2 or 3-minute selection of a video based on the book. This allows my student to picture the main character in their head, see the setting and start forming a basis for how to make a "movie in their head" for the story action. I'm careful not to spend too much time on Youtube as teens can too engrossed. I'm familiar with the reading material in my area for middle school and high school, so I have some go to videos for books they are reading.

We preview vocabulary assigned with the book/novel for our next step. In The Red Pony, the first chapter contains words like: saunter, rambunctiousness, and contemplative. We break down the meaning of saunter, for example, using our WordQuations® method.

  • Vocabulary word: saunter
  • base word is WALK
  • speed is SLOW
  • heaviness is GENTLE or POWERFULLY
  • emotion/motive is RELAXED

So when someone is sauntering, they are walking slowly, powerfully or gently, in a relaxed way. Who would walk that way? Possibly a cowboy, since the title is about a pony and a cowboy takes care of horses. I would introduce other vocabulary such as, meander and swagger, also WALK words.

How is the text organized? The Red Pony by John Steinbeck is organized in a series of stories rather than chapters. This is important for the student to know when reading and discussing the novel in class. Some books are organized into chapters and others into sections of chapters. Building a roadmap on how to navigate a new text involves understanding how the text is laid out.

Finally, do a little research on the author or time period in which the book was written. Determine if there is a personal aspect from the story to the author's life.

Based on these strategies, my student now knows a little more about the book/novel she is reading. It seems less daunting and more like an adventure. Better yet, comprehension improves because we have laid the foundation for a better understanding of the text.