With the Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity (including a standard devoted exclusively to it), there’s been a renewed interest in what actually makes a text complex. Alongside teachers in Massachusetts, I’ve been doing some work on this. We’ve been determining the big idea of a text, and then using rubrics and reading closely to analyze the qualitative elements of text complexity. This includes levels of meaning, structure, language, and knowledge demands. Knowing what makes a text complex helps us decide what to target for our instruction.
Of these qualitative elements, vocabulary likely contributes the most to text complexity. Teachers often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of unknown words students encounter. This is even more the case for students from low income backgrounds who come to school knowing fewer words (Hart and Risley 1995). Though we now know that a set “frustration level” is a myth, the fact remains that if kids don’t know enough of the words, they’re going to have a hard time understanding the text.
Teachers want to help students learn unknown words, but how? Some teachers feel compelled to directly teach all the words they don’t know, but this leaves students with a shallow understanding and no time to actually read the text. Others feel strongly that students should learn words from context. As is so often the case, the truth lies in between extremes. Teachers should carefully select the right words to teach directly, while giving students the opportunity to build their vocabulary while reading the text. In fact, direct vocabulary instruction and learning from context are complementary; teaching words directly adds to the words a student knows, making it easier to use what they know to acquire meanings of new words from context (Liben, 2013).
Help Students Master Vocabulary
1. Choose the Right Words
Teachers should be free to use their expertise to decide which words to teach. One helpful approach is to decide what big idea you want students to take away from the text, then select words that are essential for getting that big idea.
Another idea is to focus on what Isabel Beck calls “Tier Two” words. Unlike Tier One words, words that students encounter regularly, or Tier Three words, words that are encountered only in specific disciplines, Tier Two words — such as analyze, coincidence, synthesize — appear regularly across a variety of subjects. Teaching these words gives students the most bang for the buck.
2. Balance Direct Instruction and Learning from Context
There is a great deal of research that indicates vocabulary instruction improves comprehension. After you’ve picked the right words, you can’t go wrong with research-proven techniques such as Beck and McKeon’s “robust approach,” or Marzano’s six steps. Both emphasize kids building their own understanding of words through opportunities to apply the words in different contexts.
In terms of learning words from context, the research of Marilyn Jager Adams indicates that students benefit the most from reading multiple texts on the same topic — for example, animal adaptations — for building knowledge and academic vocabulary. The multiple texts enable deep knowledge about a concept. Students can leverage this knowledge to compare, contrast, and categorize the new words and concepts they encounter, in effect building new knowledge about words and concepts that the text doesn’t even contain.
3. Harness the Power of Syntax
Syntax is an often overlooked aspect of vocabulary development. The meaning of unknown words students encounter in text often hinges on understanding the syntax — which pronoun the adjective may be describing, for instance — which is a challenge with complex sentences. To help students handle syntax, one helpful strategy is parsing long sentences into small units of meaning. Another is the research-proven sentence combining approach, a cluster of related reading and writing approaches where students combine sentences, expand existing sentences, or imitate complex sentences to improve their own syntax. I love the work of the Killgallons, who use authentic texts from real authors, or you can create your own using the texts you’re reading with your students.
With these insights, the vocabulary in complex texts doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Your students can do it! How do you help students meet the vocabulary demands of complex texts? Let us know in the comments section below.
Ryan McCarty is a coach with Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization that helps school leaders support teaching that is grounded in standards, data, and the best practices of schools across the country. He partners with schools in Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was a literacy coordinator, instructional coach, and teacher in Chicago, IL. All views are his own. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanP_McCarty.