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Effective Vocabulary Instruction in a Few Minutes Per Day

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Wendy Ward Hoffer

Particularly helpful to learners are instructional strategies that take students beyond word-definition memorization to engage them more fully with the concepts behind the terms (Harmon, Hedrick, and Wood 2005). Yet, since there will never be time enough in any subject in school to directly teach students all the vocabulary they need to build in that content area, learners need more than piles of terms stacked into their brains; they also need to acquire strategies for how to learn words, such as using context clues or drawing on knowledge of word roots.

Highly effective vocabulary instruction goes beyond teaching the meaning of each individual word and instead engages learners with rich, rapid exposure to new words, linking those terms as part of an interconnected web of concepts.

In order to offer vocabulary instruction at this level, we limit how many words we work with at one time: five new words a week, taught richly, will advance learners’ vocabularies far more than twenty terms glossed over in the same time frame.

So what does this really look like?

effective vocab websizeImagine devoting just a few minutes during each class period to explicitly focusing on vocabulary development. This activity can be embedded within the mini-lesson of your math workshop, presented as a “catch” during learners’ work time, or otherwise integrated somewhere as an interconnected part of math instruction. Each segment of vocabulary instruction is intentional, planned, and linked to the prior day’s and the next day’s vocabulary learning.

In one study, Six-Step Vocabulary Instruction (Marzano 2004) was found to increase student achievement by 24 percentile points. Participating teachers followed a very structured approach:

  • Provide description, explanation, example.
  • Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  • Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term.
  • Engage students periodically in activities that help them to add to their knowledge of the terms in their vocabulary notebooks.
  • Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  • Involve students periodically in games that enable them to play with terms. (Marzano 2004)

In the context of math instruction, we might condense those six steps into three:

  • Identify critical unit vocabulary and plan for instruction
  • Introduce and record terms, a few at a time
  • Actively engage with vocabulary on a daily basis

developing-literate-mathematicians-coverDeveloping Literate Mathematicians, includes additional resources with key principles of effective vocabulary instruction, why they matter, and how to put those into practice.

Excerpt from
Hoffer, Wendy Ward. Developing Literate Mathematicians: A Guide for Integrating Language and Literacy Instruction into Secondary Mathematics. Reston: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc., 2016. (57-58)

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Harmon, J. M., W.B. Hedrick, and K.D. Wood. “Research on Vocabulary Instruction in the Content Areas: Implications for Struggling Readers.” Reading & Writing Quarterly 21, no.3 (2005): 261-80.

Marzano, Robert J. Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD, 2004.


Wendy Ward Hoffer, MA is the author of Developing Literate Mathematicians: A Guide for Integrating Language and Literacy Instruction into Secondary Mathematics, Minds on Mathematics: Using Math Workshop to Develop Understanding in Grades 4-8 and Science as Thinking: The Constants and Variable of Inquiry Work. Wendy works with teachers, schools and districts locally and nationally to promote deep thinking in math and science.

She is the creator and facilitator of several PEBC professional development institutes including, Minds on Math Institute, Science Institute, and STEM Identity Institute. Wendy received an MA in Science Education from Stanford University and earned National Board Certification while teaching middle school math and science.

See Wendy Ward Hoffer in person at a PEBC event

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