Bringing Words to Life:
Robust Vocabulary Instruction

Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown + Linda Kucan

The Guilford Press 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2019
Bringing Words to Life presents an argument for the importance of vocabulary instruction in schools, especially primary schools, along with methods for implementing it and detailed examples. (Perhaps with too much detail in some cases, though teachers may find that more useful than I did.)

Beck et al. argue that vocabulary is important for both reading comprehension and broader knowledge. Vocabulary instruction is necessary because learning meanings from natural contexts is too hard: there is often insufficient information for a reader to accurately determine the meanings of novel words. And "robust" or "rich" vocabulary instruction, presenting words in multiple contexts and involving their active use, is more effective than traditional approaches such as providing lists of words and definitions or synonym-antonym pairs. Beck et al. also emphasize the importance of "making words come to life", of making them exciting and engaging.

Looking at what words to teach, they classify words into three tiers: Tier 1 words are those typically found in spoken language, Tier 3 words are subject-specific, and Tier 2 contains everything in between. They give examples of selecting suitable words from the latter for teaching, from instructional texts (fiction and non-fiction).

Dictionary definitions are rarely suitable for child use, so teachers need to develop student-friendly explanations. Some meanings are best explained during reading, to support comprehension; a selection of words can be taught following that, either from the text or related to it. It is important to get students involved in thinking about and using words immediately.

There are some issues specific to early years instruction, with children who can't read or are in the process of learning to read. Beck et al. present some examples of words taken from A Pocket for Corduroy, with accompanying instructional sequences. In later elementary school, and in early secondary school, it is critical for children to use words in different contexts. Attention to new words can be maintained outside the classroom, through whole school programs (a "Word Wizards" example is described) or outside school activities. Assessment methods need to test deeper and not just shallow knowledge of word meanings; special approaches are necessary with pre-literate children.

Beck et al. reiterate the problems with natural contexts, but give some examples of teaching children to work with them — even if a precise meaning can't be determined, it may be possible to determine a general meaning, and children need to know how to proceed in the presence of uncertainty. They also report on a study of methods for teaching academic words (with expose as the example).

They present results from a study suggesting robust vocabulary instruction helps more with writing than traditional instruction. They touch on how to vary instruction with students requiring extra support or learning English as a second language. And in a final chapter they look at broader ways of "energising the verbal environment", making words and their meanings exciting.

There are many areas where I found Beck et al. persuasive.

One of the reasons I read Bringing Words to Life was that I realised some time ago that my childhood ideas about vocabulary acquisition were wrongheaded. Learning words merely from reading context worked for me only because I read gargantuan amounts — and still left me with the odd confusion. And my experience with foreign languages brought home to me how inefficient an approach this is. I had never thought this through, however, so it was good to see a proper explanation.

Providing word lists with dictionary definitions is indeed a pretty ineffective method of teaching meanings (and this approach is I think the origin of my suspicion of vocabulary instruction). And the kind of "robust" instruction advocated by Beck et al. is clearly better.

I am less convinced by some of their other ideas.

I am dubious about the utility of their "Tier 2" word category. As they define it, this includes around 7000 word families and extends from words that can usefully be taught to pre-literate kindergarten children to non-specialist words that students might encounter once in a decade, which seems way too broad a range to be useful, or to generalise about. They provide guidelines for selecting words from within Tier 2 for different purposes, but if that's necessary what's the point of having the category at all? The key point is, surely, that there are many words which are not domain specific but which are not commonly used in speech.

I am not convinced that devoting half an hour a week ("two or three days ... 10-15 minutes a day") to teaching kindergarten children a handful of words — one example set is morsel, delicate and stumble — is an appropriate use of time. Explaining words like that when they occur in stories, yes, and following reading with discussion of meanings, but deploying extensive vocabulary exercises and activities, however effective, seems to ignore the opportunity costs. Many children will know these words already and the ones that don't will surely pick them up. If this is not the case, and general oracy is a concern, then the extra half hour would be better spent reading more stories and talking about them — or even giving the children more playtime, with some guidance to speech-intensive games — rather than hammering a few words into everyone with a pile-driver. (Similarly, whole-school vocabulary programs no doubt work, but are always going to involve a trade-off with something else, whether it is music or mathematics or sport.)

More broadly, I remain unconvinced that separate vocabulary instruction makes sense: children need instructional and not just natural contexts, but do they need ones constructed solely for vocabulary acquisition? Just as learning specialist terms needs to be integrated into subject teaching, and learning common words should be an intrinsic part of broader oracy or literacy instruction, so with the words in between. Literary vocabulary can be integrated into the teaching of literature and poetry and creative writing. And general academic vocabulary should be taught alongside the other things necessary for reading and writing academic texts, such as their specialised syntax, argument structures, and citation conventions.

Some of the omissions in Bringing Words to Life also seem strange.

Apart from the idea of using cognates to help Spanish-speaking children learn English words, there is no discussion of etymology. Now etymology is rarely essential for understanding meanings, but some nuances are hard to grasp without it — consider pairs such as cow/beef and underwear/lingerie, or the variation between the negating prefixes un-, in-, dis- and a- — and it seems like an easy way to make words more interesting. There are potential connections to the history curriculum, but I think a basic understanding of the major sources for the English lexicon should be taught at some point for its own sake.

Similarly, morphology gets only an incidental mention. There is no advice on teaching aspects of word structure that might help children determine novel word meanings: common prefixes and suffixes, word formation rules, and so forth.

There is only a passing mention of thesauruses, and no advice on enabling active, child-directed searching for new words as part of creative writing. There's only a brief mention of dictionaries; and that is advice for teachers researching words to teach, rather than guidelines for child use. (I could be convinced that the shelves of dictionaries that adorn primary school classrooms are ornamental, but Beck et al. don't make that argument, or at least not directly.) And this is one area where Bringing Words to Life probably has dated since 2013. Online dictionaries without print space constraints now offer better definitions, and a broader range of learner dictionaries are available. There are also better apps and online resources, as well as ebook readers with touch-screen dictionary lookups.

These concerns notwithstanding, Bringing Words to Life remains a key starting point for anyone thinking about the role of vocabulary in primary schools.

September 2019

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%T Bringing Words to Life
%S Robust Vocabulary Instruction
%A Beck, Isabel L.
%A McKeown, Margaret G.
%A Kucan, Linda
%I The Guilford Press
%D 2013
%O paperback, 2nd edition, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9781462508167
%P 210pp