Episode 42 - “Bring Words to Life”: Vocabulary in the Classroom with Margaret McKeown, PhD
Margaret G. McKeown is Clinical Professor Emerita, School of Education, and Senior Scientist, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh. Dr. McKeown’s work covers the areas of learning, instruction, and teacher professional development in reading comprehension and vocabulary. She is the co-developer, with Isabel Beck, of robust vocabulary instruction and Questioning the Author. Before her career in research, Dr. McKeown taught reading and language arts in elementary school. Although now retired, she likes to keep in contact with teachers and the literacy field, and she is happily a grandmother to two little boys.
Danielle Scorrano: Hello to all READers in the Research Education Advocacy Podcast world. Welcome to the READ Podcast where we we connect you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators in education and child development. I'm your host, Danielle Scorrano, the research and Development Director at the Windward Institute.
In this episode, I invite you into the world of vocabulary with a true expert, Dr. Margaret McKeown. Many of you may know Dr. McKeown as the co-author of Bringing Words to Life. I have to be honest, this book is sitting on the top of my bookshelf at home AND work, so it took me a few minutes to contain my excitement during our interview.
In this episode, Dr. McKeown and I talk about:
- Vocabulary development and its role in reading comprehension
- Dispelling myths about how we teach vocabulary
- Effective vocabulary instruction
- The integration of explicit teaching of vocabulary while broadening and deepening student exposure to words in their adademic and social environments
When I asked Dr. McKeown about her hopes for this episode, she truly spoke to the idea of bringing words to life – that vocabulary instruction can be a deeply engaging and interactive experiences with the goal for students to deepen their connections and schema on words.
I mention one of my favorite books in the episode, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore by William Joyce where the theme is, every story matters. And in this episode, we speak to how words matter, especially for the lives of our kids.
I’ll be jumping in during this episode to highlight key episode bookmarks as learn along together. Enjoy the episode READers!
[00:00:00] Danielle Scorrano: As many of our READers know across our READ universe, some of our episodes focus on leadership and organizational change. Other episodes examine key issues in research and education and some, like today, offer key insights for educators and caregivers. And I have to say, today is the dream lesson as we take a deep dive into vocabulary with our expert, Dr. Margaret McKeown. Dr. McKeown, welcome to the READ Podcast.
[00:00:30] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Thank you. Thank you, Danielle. I'm really happy to be here. This is one of my favorite things to do in the world is to have a conversation about vocabulary.
[00:00:38] Danielle Scorrano: I think it's probably one of my favorite things to do in the world now, in 2023. And after talking to you, we met and a lot of our READers know that I meet with guests prior to the episode, and I've been buzzing about vocabulary since we met. So when I asked you about your hopes and your dreams for this episode, you said [00:01:00] to reignite the excitement of teaching vocabulary for our listeners, and I know that I feel invigorated by your presence having been informed by your work throughout my teaching career, including of course, Bringing Words to Life, which you co wrote with Dr. Isabel Beck and Dr. Linda Kucan. And before we dive into the conversation, I'd like to introduce you with your bio to our READ listeners.
So Margaret G. McKeown is Clinical Professor Emerita, School of Education, and Senior Scientist, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh. Dr. McKeown’s work covers the areas of learning, instruction, and teacher professional development in reading comprehension and vocabulary. She is the co-developer, with Isabel Beck, of robust vocabulary instruction and Questioning the Author. Before her career in research, Dr. McKeown taught reading and language arts in elementary school. Although now retired, she likes to keep in contact with teachers and the literacy field, and she is happily a grandmother to two little boys.
I love that. So, Dr. McKeown, from your perspective, I always like to start this podcast with, tell me your story, and we want to know more about your professional background and really how you got so excited about vocabulary.
[00:02:19] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah, that was an interesting question because it allowed me to think back. I think I've always been interested in language. My father was a frustrated English teacher. He had a teaching degree, but then after World War II, he never got a teaching job. So I was his pupil. And so he was always aware of language and talking to me about words and that sort of set me on a path that I became a teacher. In teaching, it just seemed to me, I never had time to really think about what was going on with my kids either, why they were having trouble getting through a text or why they weren't understanding some words. So I told myself [00:03:00] I wanted to go into research. I mean, I really had no idea what that meant, but it seemed like if you did research, you had more time to think about these things.
So, as luck would have it, I moved with my husband to Pittsburgh where the Learning Research and Development Center is, and Isabel Beck was there as a scientist and I began working with her. I then became her student and then her partner in research. And every time I read, so when I taught, I really didn't do that much with vocabulary because I knew I liked words, but I really didn't know how to get other people excited about them. But as we started in research, the more I read about how people come to understand words and how they deal with context and how they relate words to each other, it just fascinated me so much. I just wanted to do that. I wanted to introduce the lives of words to to students as much as possible.
[00:03:55] Danielle Scorrano: I love that, the lives of words. I always write down notes, and I feel like I'm writing down this [00:04:00] mind map. So what I loved about what you just said was about the lives of words. It reminded me of a book that I used to teach, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Have you ever read that book?
[00:04:11] Dr. Margaret McKeown: No.
[00:04:12] Danielle Scorrano: Oh, it is a fantastic book and you should definitely read it with your grandchildren, and it reminded me of how stories and words have this legacy. And I think for you in your work, you have, at least in the work that I've learned from you, is that you have inspired teachers to think about the legacy of words and the legacy of vocabulary. And so I just want to thank you for that. The other piece that I wanted to think about as I was writing my notes, is words can be so complex and fascinating. And when I think about vocabulary, specifically, with this is, and you talked about when you were teaching, is how tied vocabulary is with reading comprehension across the age span. And so [00:05:00] my question for you, and I know a lot of our listeners think about, let's take the Scarborough Reading rope, how vocabulary is an important facet of that. How does vocabulary contribute to reading comprehension at large?
[00:05:13] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Okay. All the way from the beginning when kids are reading, you know, easy text with high frequency words, if they're great at decoding, that's a good start. But if you decode a word and you don't recognize it as a meaningful nugget of language, it's not going to get you anywhere. So kids already have to have enough of a vocabulary so that when they decode these words, they can make sense of what they're reading and bring ideas to it. And then as kids go up the levels, the basic set of words that we use every day in conversation, most kids know most of those by the time they start school. And if they don't, they're pretty easy to pick up because those words are concrete. They're repeated all the time in [00:06:00] conversation.
The next set of words are ones that are pretty rare in conversation but almost defined text. We can call them text-based words or academic words, but they're the ones that are really that meaning of a text is formed around. Those words are harder to learn for kids independently because they don't come up that often in conversation. They come up in text. But text context can be very tricky as far as whether it provides meaning elements of a word. So as kids read, as anybody reads, and we come upon these words that endow a text with meaning, what we need is not to bring the definition of a word to mind. We need to connect it with the context.
We need to integrate it with the context. And there have been a bunch of studies that have shown that kids can be taught words with even good definitions, but then if they go to try to transfer that to reading, [00:07:00] it's not so helpful in comprehension. What you need is to be able to connect that to, first of all, connect it with the context in which it's occurring, and then connect it up with what's going on in the text. So the goal of vocabulary teaching should be to develop this network, this connectivity, this network of words and the relationships to each other so that when you come upon a word and text, that all those connections fire, so you can build a meaning of the context. If just the definition fires, it's really hard to integrate that. And we've done some tasks that really show that kids that are taught just the meaning and then you ask them to explain a sentence with a sophisticated word, they'll just give you the meaning of the word. So they know it, but they don't know what the sentence means. So vocabulary is really important to comprehension. So many studies, meta-analyses, have shown that that's sort of the number one [00:08:00] factor. It's not the only factor, but it's, it's sort of the outstanding one. But again, it's not definitions. You have to have this whole global network of connections about language.
[00:08:12] Danielle Scorrano: Hmm. I love what you talked about that beyond the memorization piece. Would you say, in synthesizing a lot what you're saying, that children are successful at vocabulary when they're able to use it in context independently? Is that too simple to say or is that a yes, and?
[00:08:35] Dr. Margaret McKeown: That captures a lot of what's true about how you could explain high quality vocabulary knowledge – if you're able to use it in a context or even to be able to explain a context that you mean in a text and to be able to describe how a word affects the meaning of a sentence of text.
[00:08:59] Danielle Scorrano: Mm-hmm. That's a good [00:09:00] point. I love how you said that. The other question that I have in thinking about vocabulary in the sense of skills, or I should even just say competencies when related to reading comprehension. Again, I wish someone could look into my brain right now because I have the Scarborough Reading Rope plastered across my face and I think about semantic language structure and background knowledge.
And so, where I'm trying to get into this, READers and Dr. McKeown, is that when you look at something like the Scarborough Reading Rope, you see them all sort of outlined separately but they're all integrated. And you said the word integration and so, how related would you say vocabulary and background knowledge, as well as vocabulary and language structure are in that sense?
[00:09:49] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Oh, very much related in that background knowledge, a lot of it is going to be verbal knowledge. So there are a lot of words associated with that. If you know a [00:10:00] certain topic or know about certain events, there are a lot of words that go along with that. So, they're separate in that background knowledge is more content knowledge, and vocabulary knowledge is really semantic around words and their meanings and connections. But of course, but they overlap greatly because when you learn background knowledge, you're also learning new vocabulary.
And as far as structure, say language structure, yeah, that's also an important piece in vocabulary learning. It is when you learn a word and you know, one of the reasons that learning a definition can't do it all. When you learn a word, it means you're learning how to use it. So a lot of other things go along with that, like how it fits syntactically into sentences, the kinds of situations it's used in, whether it's a positively toned word or a negatively toned word, whether it's a very formal word or an informal word, [00:11:00] all those kinds of things fit into your knowledge of vocabulary and if you miss one of those elements, you may end up either misusing a word or using it in a way that sort of shows your ignorance. So yeah, there are a lot of features of words besides just a semantic meaning for it. Yeah.
Danielle Scorrano: Danielle here for our first bookmark of this episode, vocabulary development. I loved learning about how interconnected vocabulary growth is within language and reading development. Let’s learn more from Dr. McKeown on the myths of vocabulary instruction and what she means by robust vocabulary instruction.
[00:11:18] Danielle Scorrano: Thank you for clarifying that for me, because when I think about again, vocabulary as it stands, it's so important and vital, and as you said, so interconnected to many facets of language. So I could continue going down the twisted web that we're going and ask a lot of different types of interesting questions about vocabulary, but I want to get to instruction. And I think back to my own learning as a student and perhaps still having nightmares of sitting in classrooms, maybe, I'm drawing a picture like people can see me, matching words with their definitions or being asked a word randomly [00:12:00] and asked to give the definition. As you said, that's not a correct way to teaching vocabulary. So what are some top myths about how we teach vocabulary? What are some things that may be misconceptions or myths about this type of instruction?
[00:12:13] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Hmm. Well, hopefully the myth of the definition stands in for what a word is dying. I mean, if that's still out there, that would be the biggest and the most problematic myth. A word's definition is a definition for a word is not really what a word means. It's barely, it's not even the cliff notes of what a word means.
It's like having a one sentence blurb about a 600 page novel. You know, seeing a definition, you might know a little about that word after you've read it, but you would be missing so much. And I think one of the issues with that is that often, a mature language user might say, but I just looked up word the other day and now I feel like I know it.
But the thing is, if you look up an unfamiliar word, you are bringing [00:13:00] so much knowledge already. Even if you don't know that particular word, you're bringing so much knowledge of words in general, you could already plug that word into situations because you've read a lot. So it can be tricky for people to actually believe the definitions don't work, but they don't.
[00:13:18] Danielle Scorrano: Right.
[00:13:18] Dr. Margaret McKeown: To me another myth is that the best way to get kids to understand new words is to pre-teach them before a text is read, and that's not particularly effective because one, usually just a quick definition is given. Two, if several words are taught, then by the time the students reach them in the text, they're not going to remember, or they're going to get the definitions confused. And again, when they reach that word in the text, if all they have is the definition, the integration problem comes up. They're not going to be able to integrate the word meaning and come up with or make sense of that context. So the best way to deal with [00:14:00] vocabulary, if you're looking at text and choosing words from text, is to be reading with kids either in the younger grades, read alouds or in the older grades, you know, reading a text together and discussing it as you go along.
When you get to a sentence that has a word that you want to work with in it, do one of a couple of things. Either just, restate that word, that sentence without that word. Like if you read, she was very benevolent to the orphans. say she was very kind and helped out the orphans and just, and then just proceed. You don't have to spend a lot of time with it. Or you might say, you've been reading about somebody who's choosing something and then it gets to say, and her decision was very arbitrary. You could stop and say, given what we know about how she's making this decision, what do you think it means that it was arbitrary? And so you can use the context, but feed them what they need to use and then talk [00:15:00] about that word. And then after the reading, then you can go and do the rich instruction of explaining the word meaning, giving other contexts, and getting kids to actually use the words.
[00:15:12] Danielle Scorrano: I love that you brought up those three examples. It reminded me of what I was in my class teaching To Kill a Mockingbird just a few years ago. I still have so many fond memories of teaching vocabulary and one being this rich vocabulary instruction that you talk about and the robust vocabulary instruction that you co-authored with Isabel Beck. If you were to be in a Windward classroom, Dr. McKeown, just watching the vibrancy that's the igniting of love of words through vocabulary routines. It's just an incredible sight to see from the teacher, just enthusiastically introducing a word. You have students chorally stating the word and seeing the words in contexts with multiple exposures, connecting it to other contexts. It's just, that's what you want see in the love of teaching. And so, [00:16:00] yeah, I mean, for our READ listeners, can you explain and break down the approach to what you mean by robust vocabulary instruction?
[00:16:09] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Sure. So first of all, I wanted to say, you know, that yeah, this whole idea of enjoying and being enlivened and by vocabulary, I mean, we called our book, Bringing Words to Life for a reason. We really mean that. Bring those words to life. So robust vocabulary instruction, we mean it to be the kind of vocabulary instruction that's going to affect comprehension. So you're teaching for that. And it means that, about words you want to give definitional and contextual information. So there's nothing wrong with the definition, but that shouldn't be the central thing that's worked with. And kids should definitely not be asked to or expected to memorize the definition.
What we were really careful with in our vocabulary programs is anytime we wanted to explain a word meaning, or remind kids of a word meaning, we'd try to restate it in a different way so that it wasn't a [00:17:00] pattern that they memorized. And then multiple exposures is huge. And then getting kids to actually do things with the words, talk about their uses, choose good from bad uses, come up with new uses, all those kinds of things.
And that creates these connections to other words. And those connections also make it easier, make the words more accessible as they're met in context that they're reading. They can get to it very quickly because there's a lot of stuff surrounding it. There are a lot of different paths that kids can take to getting, or remembering what they need to bring to a text about a word.
Second bookmark- I think it was interesting that Dr. McKeown clarifies the myths of teaching vocabulary. I was excited to learn that vocabulary is not taught in isolation that it must be taught in context and through multiple interactions and exposures. I asked Dr. McKeown to elaborate more on how teachers intentionally incorporate vocabulary in their instruction.
[00:17:42] Danielle Scorrano: When you talk about teaching vocabulary words, you talk about teaching it in context, providing multiple exposures and multiple opportunities for students to interact with the word. I want to operationalize this about what it means for classroom instruction. And so of course, I love deliberating this and thinking about what does this mean for the teacher in the classroom? And what I hear you saying is that cultivating vocabulary growth extends beyond instruction routines. It's really integrated within this intentional language-rich environment. But I want to hear more about this deep teaching of vocabulary.
So when you talk about multiple exposures, opportunities and context with students, what are those instructional implications? How do teachers take that and translate to the classroom?
[18:26] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah. So by offering students the word and the context, but then immediately trying to get them involved with the word and then changing up the context. So, one of the examples I think of was, a second grade class was working on with the word comfortable, and they had talked about what it meant. The teacher had given them an example of, I have a really comfortable couch in my living room. What's something comfortable, you can think of? And kids came, kept coming up with furniture. My bed is really comfortable. The chair in my kitchen is really comfortable. And she realized, oh, all these examples are the same categories. So she switched it up and knew enough to switch it up and said, okay. well, other things besides furniture can be comfortable. I mean, just explicitly said that's a category. How about clothing? What's something you wear that's comfortable?
And so it got kids moved off of that a little bit. And that's really important because remember, we're trying to build networks, semantic networks. So anytime you can give a new category, it's a whole new node there for that network. And then what I'd also do, if I were that teacher, and maybe she did this, is later on, say something about, we can talk about feeling comfortable. Like, I don't feel comfortable when I go out to a party and there's nobody I know there. I feel very comfortable, sharing secrets with my best friend to get that kind of more metaphorical meaning of comfortable, and that's important for a couple of reasons.
One, then again, they're extending their understanding of that word. And the other is that, because so many of our words do that, they have these different nuances. They have abstract as well as concrete meanings, metaphorical meanings. So if you can get kids used to that idea of going there, with a simple word, like comfortable, it really broadens their general outlook on words and knowing about words.
[20:34] Danielle Scorrano: I like how you talked about those multiple meanings and I want to dig a little deeper into something like that. How do then you sort of draw in morphology and relationships with words. How do you fold those in?
[20:46] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah. There are lots of ways to do that. And you can do it systematically, or you can do it more informally, especially with derivational, and inflection I wouldn't even bother with, but derivational morphology, derivational morphemes like -able. I would do it informally because I think teaching those by themselves, they really don't have that meaning. And they mean slightly different things when they're attached to different words. So I would just sort of point it out and not even every time a word comes up, like the word comfortable maybe, I'd say somewhere down the road. So, you know, we can break this word apart. It’s the main word or base word, or whatever word you use in your classroom, is comfort. Like, I feel comfort when I'm in bed with my cat. I feel comfort when I know all my doors are locked or whatever. So, comfort. And when we had -able, we can kind of think of it as able to have comfort.
You know, I'm comfortable, so I'm able to have comfort when I have a cup of tea, and that would be it. I might liken it to one or two other words that had -able in it, but I would definitely not want to like write down a meaning for -able, Because it sort of means able to, but not exactly. So I don't want kids to get stuck in trying either trying to remember what these word parts mean, but just to be able to use them and know that they turn up. And probably one of the places I'd use more is, if kids are having trouble identifying words in reading and decoding to say, okay, that word is, think of it as, two parts, or you know, if there's a word with un- like unredeemable think, okay, we have to break this word apart, what do you see in the beginning? Yeah, un- so it's unredeemable, so we've got three parts just to point that out to them. So they're on the lookout for that in decoding, that's probably the most frequent that I'd use for derivational morphology.
Now, Latin Roots on the other hand, I just love teaching those because, one, I think you have to start with sort of explaining where do we get this language of English and the idea that you know, languages meld over time. We get a lot of words from other languages. We did this in a couple of classrooms that kids really get into this. Understanding that kind of unlocks a secret goofiness about language, and we would show them the graph of a language tree and how languages are related. They love that. I mean, they leapt on that like crazy. And so start off like that and show them in a few words how, you know, we had this Latin word, we had this Latin word, min, M-I-N. And now it turns up in some of our words, like diminish and minus and minor, and just start them that way. You can do it systematically if you want, by starting with a set of words that all have Latin roots and they're not hard to find.
And then every time you introduce them, when you introduce the word the meaning say, oh, you know what? This has one of those Latin roots in it. Here it is. Can you think of any other words that have that in it and give them a couple and just move on from there. Or you can do it just when it comes up, like when you teach diminish or vocabulary, vocal. Just point out the root. Show them another couple of examples, but it's also important to show them some non-examples to say that this looks like it would be, or oh, it looks like it has this root in it. It would be related to this word, but it's not sometimes. Because of the way words have come together sometimes, it doesn't mean what we think it does. Because I think, you know, it's really important to try to start to build in that flexibility with kids so that it'll get stuck in, thinking this has to mean that in trying to assign it a meaning that it doesn't have.
[24:55] Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, I love how you're including all these different types of options and avenues that teachers can explore in their classroom. We were just talked about before we recorded the etymonline website. It is the thing that I could dive into for hours and my students loved it when I would say, oh, this was my fancy resource. Of course they were eighth graders and they were a group of students that, like you said, were so lively and excited for this type of examination of words. But I love that. And I also hear you talking a lot about intentionality while you talk about the informal opportunities to build vocabulary, I hear this sense of intentionality in exposing students to words. And that brings me to the robust vocabulary instructional sequence. Now in a lot of what we're talking about, that instructional sequence is one facet of so many things that you can do to build vocabulary, but I love breaking it down. And so when did you and Dr. Beck really decide, or come up with that sequence itself? I'd love to get a little bit into the history of it before we get into the sequence.
[26:04] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Oh, that's interesting. I think it emerged over time. I think if I look back in our very first vocabulary program, I bet we didn't do that sequence exactly, but the two things we knew from the get-go were we wanted to have some kind of definition for kids and a context right away. We wanted to have them those two pieces of information out there.
But I think the sequence that we developed evolved both, you know, it, it got refined as we noticed what we wanted kids to have right away. And as we developed research programs, because you have to be really systematic when you're doing research. You have do the same thing for every word. You have to have the same number of words every week and and those things that you don't absolutely have to do in the classroom. And it's it not even necessarily best practice overall for a classroom, but we had to do that for research. So I think that's part of why it came up and it was just an efficient way that we could get each word introduced.
[27:11] Danielle Scorrano: Hmm. That's interesting. I love hearing the backstory of that. So in the first step of this instructional sequence focuses on choosing the word, right? And so I know that you've talked about tier one, tier two and tier three, these are just fancy words that indicate, what?
[27:26] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Well, they basically at its most basic, I think tier one is everyday words, high frequency words. Tier three is content words that are used mainly in one discipline. And tier two words are the sort of more sophisticated words you don't really hear every day, or if somebody does, include some of them in their conversation, you start to think, Ooh, they have a good vocabulary. You know, Tier II are the words that are much more often met in text that tend to be not the simplest way to describe something. So it's kind of adding facets to an ordinary word and that are used across domains in a lot of different contexts.
So, those are kind of the basics. But the thing about tier two is, people will ask us for a list of tier two words. Well, we can give you lists, but we can't give you a list of all of them because at some point, this was never meant to be a scientific fact of tier twoness. It was meant to be a way to kind of think about words, a heuristic way for mentally organizing your words so that as you're choosing words for kids, you can kind of think okay, here are the tier two characteristics – a word that's not high frequency, that kids are going to meet every day, and a word that kids are going to meet in a lot of different texts and then, that will help guide you. The bottom line is mileage. Are kids going to get a lot of use out of this word because they're going to meet it in text, they don't hear it every day. And then it's really almost backing up from that. So, how do I know mileage? Well, I need to think about the characteristics of tier two words can help you identify that.
[29:14] Danielle Scorrano: Oh, I love this such a reflective process, where you identify words, and it's fun for a teacher to actually think about that.
[29:20] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Oh yeah. And you know, speaking of the backstory, the reason that developed the Tiers framework in the early eighties, I guess. We had good colleagues at the Center for the Study of Reading in Illinois, Dick Anderson and Bill Nagy, and they were working at things differently in vocabulary. And one of the things that they said is, well, they weren't sure that vocabulary instruction was useful because there were so many words in the language. You couldn't teach them all. And we went, okay, hold on, you don't need to teach them all. And then it was like, okay, examining why you don't have to teach them all, and which words should you be teaching? So that's how we got to the development of tier.
[30:06] Danielle Scorrano: Oh, I love that. That's so cool. So the next steps, obviously you have your students say the word aloud, and then you provide the student friendly definition. And for me, I think that was the most challenging because even when you're deep teaching a word or fast mapping a word, or like you said, just providing a quick definition if the child is messing up or makes an error in the word or might not know it, that to me is a little difficult. So do you have some recommendations of how teachers can develop or find examples of student friendly definitions?
[30:38] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah. Yeah. The Co-build dictionary, the Collins Dictionary. Collins Dictionary is online. That's a super duper resource. Another, learner's dictionary is Longman. Now, I don't know if they have that online or not, but I always go to Collins when when I'm starting to fuss with a word and I need some help. Also, there's another great resource. Do you know about onelook.com? Oh my gosh, one look.com. It will offer you that you type in a word and it will offer you definitions in oh 25 dictionaries.
[31:12] Danielle Scorrano: Wow.
[31:13] Dr. Margaret McKeown: You really have fun sort of playing with and seeing the way different dictionaries define different aspects of the word. And sometimes you can put together a definition from that. But I'd say, Collins is the best. Another way is to start with a really good sentence that has the word and, indignant is one word as an example. You know, a sentence of, the boy felt indignant when his mother gave his favorite toy to baby cousin. And then describe to yourself, okay, what does that mean he's feeling? And sometimes that's a way to approach it. Again, what we really want kids to know is what meaning does that add to that sentence? So we want them to understand how is that kid feeling? He's feeling upset because he is kind of angry. His mother did something unfair, he thought, and then offer that as the roots of the definition.
[32:20] Danielle Scorrano: Mm. I love that. Those are interesting ways to think about it. As you think about indignant, let's just use this as an example. The next step would be to provide examples of the words in different contexts. So let's say I was teaching the book, The Outsiders, I think the word, indignant is in that book. So, let's say it came up in the book and then I wanted to show different examples. So what should teachers keep in mind in providing example sentences with the words and its usage?
[32:46] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah. I think different contexts and situations, so think about, what might people be indignant about? He might be indignant about, a child might be indignant about losing his toy. An adult might be indignant about something in politics, the way somebody's reacted or people might be indignant about someone telling lies and seeming to get away with it, and then form context around that.
Now, one great resource is Google sentences with indignant. And you'll get lots of examples. They won't all be good, but it'll be enough to give you some ideas of what to go on. But it really is trying to think on the range of situations in which that word is appropriate.
[33:33] Danielle Scorrano: Great. And what a way actually to activate schema and bring in background knowledge. Right? If I had been teaching an article four months ago on climate change, and Greta Thunberg was indignant about climate change, bring in that example. So that's, that's really fun. Um,
[33:48] Dr. Margaret McKeown: That is so perfect. That's exactly the kind of mindset that will be really helpful for teachersto, to develop. And even if indignant wasn't used in that article about Greta, it clearly applies very well.
[34:05] Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, I love that. The last part of this in sequence is checking for understanding, providing multiple interactions. So what are some ways that teachers can cultivate these multiple interactions for students to engage with the word? Are there opportunities for chorally stating the words out loud? What are some ways that teachers can cultivate multiple interactions for students to engage with the word does that use as this informal opportunity to check for understanding of these words?
[34:42] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yes, absolutely, let me start with that part. It absolutely provides an opportunity to assess what kids are getting, or how well they're understanding, and whether they can use the word on their own. So it's a really good informal assessment opportunity. So there are two things in systematic instruction. So the first day, you have to get kids involved with the word. And then on subsequent days, you need to give some way for them to get interactive. We list a couple of ways in Bringing Words to Life, but things like, example, non-example, you know, which is an example of feeling indignant. You huff off because somebody is playing with your toy or you sit down and share your toy, which, and why? And things like, two ways to often start out those kinds of questions to get kids to work with is, which would, so, you know, which would be an example of indignant?
Which would be consistent? And what would make a clock consistent? What would make an actor in a play consistent? And so giving different scenarios that involve different people, different objects, whatever. Those, if you think in those ways, that those will often give you ideas of how to create a kind of stem to get kids involved.
[36:05] Danielle Scorrano: Hmm. I love that. That's so great.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Danielle Scorrano: I loved diving deep into some instructional routines and sequences to reinforce vocabulary. It was interesting to hear is that vocabulary in the classroom involves comprehensive, interactive, and integrated approaches and that background knowledge, content, and context are important. Intentionality in a language-rich environment is a theme that keeps coming to mind, which is highlighted in this next part of the conversation. At the end, Dr. McKeown shares additional resources for your learning.
[00:36:08] Danielle Scorrano: You’re talking about teaching the definition in context. Multiple exposures, providing students with multiple interactions for active engagement. And what I'm hearing, is that it's very teacher directed?
[00:36:21] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Absolutely. Absolutely.
[00:36:23] Danielle Scorrano: Why is that so important?
[00:36:26] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Well, I found, why is that so? Wow.
[00:36:28] Danielle Scorrano: I have so many questions that just keep coming into my head.
[00:36:32] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah. Yeah. I know. It's important because I think, often kids don't know what they don't know. So they may read a text and not understand it, but not even realize that it's because of these certain words in the text that that were tripping them up. And I think, unless kids already come in with a love of words, it's going to be hard for them to ignite themselves because what are the tools they're [00:37:00] given? Typically, kids have texts that they read, there's a dictionary or you know, you can look up word meaning online. But you need to set the sparks. I think the teacher has to do that, has to set up conditions so that happens. And then, we want to see kids take over, and have discussions and talk about word use. I talk about doing things like one of the activities we use a lot is what we call sentence stems. So we might say something like, her movements were very subtle when. And then they have to finish the sentence. So what you can do is give kids, give half the class, say you're working with six words, half the class, three words, the other class, the other half, three words, and tell them to come up with a stem.
[00:37:47] Danielle Scorrano: Mm.
[00:37:48] Dr. Margaret McKeown: And then you can swap them and have the other half finish the stems of their peers. So you have kids doing a lot and take some of the work off the teacher. Plus it gives kids even more [00:38:00] experience with the word, so you can move some of this more and more to kids or, you could have kids look up a word in a dictionary and then say, okay, what do the dictionaries say? Do you understand what that means? And, and maybe look up a couple of definitions. I mean, there are ways to have kids take some control, but yet bring it back. The interaction and talking about words is such an important part of this. I've seen teachers say they're using robust vocabulary, but when I look at, they're doing, they're doing worksheets or they're giving them an example, non-example, but having kids write it down, no, it's has to be interactive.
Somebody's has to have an answer. Do you, oh, do you have a different answer? Why is that? Why is that the answer? That was a really important part of our vocabulary that the instruction that we developed was to always be asking why? Why does that word fit the sentence? Why is that a good example of consistent? That's what really, again, makes those connections and [00:39:00] ignites the semantic network.
[00:39:02] Danielle Scorrano: Hmm. Thank you for sharing all those examples. You talked about the myths of vocabulary instruction. And then you also clarified some opportunities to teach vocabulary when you talked about restating the definition, we call it fast mapping. So let's say for example, students coming up to a word that they decoded incorrectly, or as a teacher, I predicted that they didn't know the meaning of the word, and it may affect the comprehension of their sentence. So I would say a student friendly definition. What's the difference between that and deep teaching? I guess maybe, and we had talked about this when I had met you, so what's the difference between just stating the definition or fast mapping as I like to call it, and this idea of robust deep teaching. Is it a difference in goal? How do you approach those two?
[00:39:50] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Well, it can be a difference in goal or it could be, you know, fast mapping can be the first step in deep teaching. So, you know when you've got a text and there are a bunch of words that [00:40:00] kids don't know, some of the words you may just want to fast map for because it has a role in understanding the text and then forget about it. It's not that important of a word to keep around or you have other words that you think are even more important. So it can be a first step, but the goal in fast mapping a word, It would be unrealistic if your goal was for the kids to know that word a week later and to be able to give you good uses for it. That just would be unrealistic.
So the goal is for the kids to really take on these words as part of the vocabulary repertoire. So that's why we offer them these multiple contexts. So the first step we often do is if a word has occurred in text, is to say, well, in the text it said, and review that context and make sure kids understand it. Give them a general friendly explanation and then give an example that's not related to [00:41:00] the text. So, start the life of that word that goes beyond just that text, and then you want to pull kids in. So say you're working with consistent. So the text was about, she was consistent in her study habits and then say, I might be, consistent in taking the same roads to work every day. What's something that you do in your life that's consistent and have kids talk about that. So that’s the basis of it. And then you have to keep bringing it back. Another really key feature of vocabulary learning is that it's cumulative. You almost cannot learn a word the first time you encounter it. You have to develop these connections. You have to see it in context and experience it. And one of the reasons that's really important for the kinds of words that we focus on,these tier two words or academic words, is they tend to be polysemous and they tend to be abstract.
Now, [00:42:00] polysemous means not multiple meanings in the sense of, roses, a flower and he rose from the dead, but different nuances of a word. And that's why the academic, the set generally called academic words, are so important. They apply across domains, so when you meet them in different domains, their meaning shifts just a little bit. That's again, why it's important to have these multiple contexts and multiple experiences with the word.
[00:42:29] Danielle Scorrano: It's interesting that you said that because I reached out to some of my educator friends and was so excited that we were speaking, and I asked, I said, what are some top questions that you have for your classroom instruction for Dr. McKeown? And the one question that, speaking of actually multiple contexts, multiple exposures, the one question was how can teachers continue to expose students to vocabulary words they are taught in order for students to continue to use these words and store them in their lexicon? So perhaps like some [00:43:00] strategies that I think they're looking for in this question.
[00:43:03] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Just keep bringing them up. When I talk to teacher groups, I usually say, so there should be some place in the classroom where all the words that you've taught reside, maybe with, if you want to do it the old fashioned way, an index card that has the word, quick definition and a context, and kids could add context to it. It's really good when kids are upper elementary or middle school for them to have a vocabulary log. Also, it doesn't have to be very formal, the word, quick definition, and a context, and then revisit those. Maybe when there's a few extra minutes in class, the teacher could pull up a word and say, has anybody used this word lately?
Part of it for teachers is to really just tuning their minds to words and sort of looking for something that they read in the newspaper that either a word was used that had come up in class or reminded them of a word [00:44:00] that was similar to a word, and then say, oh, you know, when I read this, I thought of this word. Why do you think I thought of that word? And get kids to have their words be something that's not just a classroom exercise. So they're there all day long. It's also important we've done in a couple of our studies is challenge kids to come to class with uses of their words that they've seen outside of class. And we found that not only did kids do that and we're excited to do that, but it really did affect their learning. We found an added comprehension boost for the set of words we did that with. And in another study we also found better learning of those words. So it's very important to keep the words going. And another thing is as you're reading subsequent text, be on the lookout for, even if the word, if a specific word that you've taught doesn't appear again, maybe something could be described by a vocabulary word. And we actually saw first grade [00:45:00] kids doing that themselves.
When we first taught text talk and were teaching words from read alouds, they would say, oh, this guy is wary of what's happening. And that word hadn't been used, but they just remembered that word from a different text. So if you start to develop those kinds of things as habits in the classroom, then they'll sort of be self motivating. You know, they'll just be ongoing.
[00:45:26] Danielle Scorrano: Hmm. I love that. It reminded me again of some of the opportunities that it would extend beyond, like you said, beyond vocabulary instruction. A lot of times you might see some of my colleagues putting the words they learned during reading in their writing work.
[00:45:40] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:45:41] Danielle Scorrano: And their writing activities and writing paragraphs and essays. So I really love that. You mentioned a lot of studies that you've been doing that your career and related to different types of skill building activities. So what other areas of instruction can teachers use to harness the power of vocabulary in terms of [00:46:00] instructional techniques?
[00:46:02] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Well, you mentioned writing and that's certainly one. There should be a connection between vocabulary and writing, whether it's just examining an author's use of words and, and say, why did this author use this word here? What what did she mean by that, to challenging kids to use some of their vocabulary words in their own writing.
When I taught, I used to do a brainstorming before we'd do the writing. And part of it was, you know, I'd give them a writing prompt and say, okay, what words do you think you're going to be able to use in a story about that? And then, do that. But then also prompt them with, well, are there any words that we've studied this year in class that you think might fit that? And it's not even saying that they have to use those words in writing, but just to have them thinking about specific words and in general about how are they going [00:47:00] make their writing better by use of use of vocabulary. And again, it's discussion, you know, interaction around writing, whether it's, have students do a piece of writing, have students read some of their pieces and comment.
Specifically on the words, did you see any words that just were really well used that really gave you a picture of what this character was doing? But yeah, definitely bring it into writing it. It helps the writing, it helps the learning of the words and hopefully it'll be fun and interesting for kids as well.
[00:47:37] Danielle Scorrano: Hmm. Speaking of being invigorated and reinvigorated as you're talking, I should say, I feel this sense of energy because I think all of our READers, and you might know from our previous conversation of just how excited I get about creating language rich classroom environments. And I [00:48:00] don't think that any of us, you and I on this conversation, other, you know, reading researchers, educators, classroom teachers can really underestimate or underscore the power that rich classroom language has on building a number of skills and vocabulary is a testament to that.
[00:48:20] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Because you know, vocabulary, again, it's not just meanings of words, it's using the language. So as students are being asked to talk about, a word, use or come up with their own context for a word, it's generating language. So it's becoming better able to express themselves, better able to make themselves understood.
So yeah, all that goes along with vocabulary and one of the things that I think depresses me the most is to hear either teachers or kids say, [00:49:00] the subject, my least favorite subject is vocabulary, you know, I find that so wounding because vocabulary shouldn't be something that's tedious. I mean, this is your language. This is how you express and you show yourself to the world, and this is how you come to understand the world. How can you hate it? It just is very, very upsetting when I hear that. I figure it's usually because kids are tasked with finding definitions of words and then practicing definitions of words, which isn't going to get them to where they need to be with language use. And then they're always going to be disappointed in vocabulary.
[00:49:39] Danielle Scorrano: Right. Well, I think that actually speaks back to the myth, and maybe we didn't really talk explicitly about that, but the myth that people think that, vocabulary is simply strategy, memorization, taught in isolation when really it’s part of the entire conversation. What I'm hearing from you is that it's integrated. It's part of a language rich environment and [00:50:00] folded into a lot of other areas of reading and literacy, truly. So how can you not love vocabulary when you're just exposed to this language rich world that is a classroom?
[00:50:15] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the whole thing is language use and not thing to avoid is if you find that you're having kids rehearse word meanings, you're not going in the right direction. Yeah, it's language use. That's, that's what so much of school is about and vocabulary is at the heart of that.
[00:50:34] Danielle Scorrano: Mm-hmm. I love it. I can go on and on with you about vocabulary, I was going to say, I think one of the things , you've mentioned was a lot of different studies that you have done over your career and that you have collaborated on with your colleagues. What are you invested in now, I should say, as you are sitting, probably focusing a lot on your family and your grandchildren and you're enjoying life in [00:51:00] Arizona. I know you are continuously invested in vocabulary, and so right now, what are you invested in exploring, researching, and sharing with educators and truly other colleagues in your field about vocabulary?
[00:51:14] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Hmm. Well, I think there are two things. I guess the thing that I really want to share is exactly what we've been talking about. The idea that you have to ignite this excitement about vocabulary. And it is language use. That's a huge focus and that so much of vocabulary, teaching and learning can be done informally.
It doesn't have to be this, routine of definition, context, I mean, that's important and all those things should get out there at some point. But the thing isn't, you know, some other things that I think I, I guess I want people to come to understand better is that there are lots more words that kids are going to need in their lifetimes, lots more than, than we could possibly teach. So just put that out of your [00:52:00] head if you're thinking you're going to teach all the words that kids need. So what you need to do is really get them started on this path so that they can do the rest of the job themselves.
And that's why getting context is so important. And also there is no perfect set of words to teach. There are lots of lists that are helpful in directing our attention to, oh, that's a word that comes up a lot in different contexts. That's good. But there is no perfect set. You don't have to give the same attention to each word. Now, when we are doing research, we had to do that. Everything had to be the same for each word. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a valid study. We wouldn't be able to explain our results. But you don't have to do that. You know, just throw out a word because you know, you read it in a novel you were reading, you thought it'd be interesting for kids to work with. There may be a set of five words that you really want kids to learn well, and you keep coming back to those and coming back to those. But it doesn't have to be formal, it doesn't have to be equal on all the words. [00:53:00] And I think as far as my colleagues and research, what I'd like to promote is, the idea that we still know very little about how vocabulary affects comprehension. Lots of us do studies, we teach a bunch of words, and then we test kids on do they know their meanings? Do they know a sentence with a word? And then we give them a general vocabulary test. That's a lousy kind of thing to do because it, sometimes it happens, we get outcomes on the general comprehension.
Just as often we don't, we really have to dig into that and find out, what's that gap that we're missing? Because we know that vocabulary effects comprehension. When and how does it happen after you've learned a set of words? When do those words that you've learned, are likely to start affecting your learning of other words? And when does it become a more general effect to most texts you [00:54:00] pick up, you're going to be able to better understand. There’s a lot of emptiness in there that we don't understand. And I would like to see researchers dive into that a little more, whether it means having longer term vocabulary studies where they follow word learning with kids over several years, or whether it means coming up with other kinds of assessments that don't just look at the words that have been learned and then a generalized vocabulary test but start to fill in the middle. You know, what if I give you a context that has almost no clues to it, and you've learned the word two months ago, how do you do an understanding that context? So it’s things like that, getting to understand more of the process.
[00:54:45] Danielle Scorrano: Yeah. I appreciate you talking about the research and where you see it going. Speaking of the research, I think about some of the frameworks that we see a lot in the Science of Reading, we mentioned the Scarborough Reading Rope, I'm thinking about even like the Simple View of [00:55:00] Reading where you have word level skills and language comprehension and of course vocabularies folded on so many levels. Even when you think of the best structured literacy programs or the explicit instruction that foster language and reading comprehension, vocabularies fold into that. So I guess my last question for you is, what do you hope more educators knew about vocabulary as it pertains to the Science of Reading?
[00:55:29] Dr. Margaret McKeown: That vocabulary drives reading and reading comprehension, but it's a depth of knowledge about words. And there has to be facility in knowing a lot about a word. So nuances in the kinds of different contexts. It can be used in as well as being able to access that knowledge very quickly as you're reading. Because if you have to stop and think, oh, what's the meaning [00:56:00] that's right. No, no, that's not it, you're not going to comprehend a text by the time you get to the end of it. So I think the, sort of the complexity of vocabulary, but also you don't have to teach all of that complexity that will come along if you just give kids this richness of different context and interactions and talk about different contexts that will build itself. You don't have to worry about, oh, now I have to teach the syntax. That will all come along as long as you're, talking about and using words surrounded by the language in the classroom.
[00:56:34] Danielle Scorrano: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Whew. Dr. McKeown, where can we find you? Where can we learn more about you? What books and research do you recommend that we read about you as I go home and order every single book I could find authored by you?
[00:56:52] Dr. Margaret McKeown: I've authored a number of books. There's Bringing Words to Life as you mentioned, and the second edition is like twice as [00:57:00] long as first one. So definitely get that one. And that also has a study guide if teachers are interested in reading that together, a study guide comes with it.
Now, that kind of takes you through that. We also, did a book called Creating Robust Vocabulary Instruction that is basically just questions and answers and lots and lots of examples of texts and the word from kindergarten through high school and the words like chapter by chapter hat might be good vocabulary to share with kids. So that’s a favorite feature of mine.
[00:57:41] Danielle Scorrano: And where can we connect with you? I know we just connected on Twitter.
[00:57:45] Dr. Margaret McKeown: Oh, okay. Yeah, I’m on Twitter. You can probably find my email online easily, and I'm [00:58:00] happy if teachers want to email me and ask me questions. Being retired now, I have the time to do that kind of thing to answer emails and think about teachers questions and that's sort of fun for me. Feel free to do that. My, my email is just firstname.lastname@example.org, so send me stuff.
[00:58:21] Danielle Scorrano: You are just an inspiration of continuous learning and lifelong teaching. So Dr. McKeown, thank you so, so much for being on the READ Podcast. I really appreciated learning with you today.
[00:58:35] Dr. Margaret McKeown: You are very welcome and thank you for doing this for teachers and educators. It's great to have things like podcasts to listen to and learn from.
[00:58:44] Danielle Scorrano: Aw. Thank you so much.
Danielle Scorrano: What an episode! We talked about so much! Thank you, Dr. McKeown for delighting me with words, conversation, and insights about vocabulary. Thank you to all READers for learning along with me. Check out all of the bookmarks and resources from this episode as well as from past guests at readpodcast.org.
My goal is to continue to learn from and connect with other inspiring leaders in research education. If you have any feedback or an idea about a guest, email me at email@example.com.
As always, you can connect with The Windward Institute on social media including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I also invite you to check out our website, thewindwardschool.org/wi where you can subscribe to the READ Podcast and WI monthly newsletters or learn more about upcoming events and professional development opportunities.
Thank you for learning with me. Until next time, READers!
The READ Podcast invites Margaret McKeown, PhD, for a deep dive on vocabulary development and instruction. Dr. McKeown is a celebrated researcher, professor, teacher educator, and co-author of numerous books on vocabulary such as Bringing Words to Life.
In this episode, Dr. McKeown discusses robust, integrated, and comprehensive approaches to engaging children with vocabulary. She explains the role of vocabulary in reading comprehension, dispels myths about vocabulary instruction, and discusses the integration of engaging students in explicit vocabulary instruction with broadening and deepening student exposure to new words and background knowledge in classroom environments. This episode sparks inspiration and intentionality for “bringing words to life” within a content and language-rich classroom environment.
Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”
1. Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension
Listen to 5:41 – 11:45 to learn more.
Vocabulary is a key facet of reading comprehension, and it is interconnected with language development.
“The goal of vocabulary teaching should be to develop connectivity and a network of words so that when students come upon a word in a text, all those connections fire. It’s about building meaning in context.”
The goal of building vocabulary knowledge is for students to be able to draw connections between words across different contexts.
2. Myths About Vocabulary Instruction
Listen to 11:45 – 15:39 to learn more.
Top myths about vocabulary instruction include:
- Pre-teaching vocabulary
- Teaching new words in isolation with definitions
These approaches are not effective for building student vocabulary given the complex nature of word meanings and the importance of context in learning new words.
2. Integrated Approaches to Vocabulary Instruction
Listen to 18:09 – 36:35 to learn more.
"A key feature of vocabulary learning is that it's cumulative. You cannot learn a word the first time you encounter it. You have to develop these connections and see the word in context and experience it."
Vocabulary should be taught in context and should provide students with multiple exposures and opportunities to interact with the word, its meaning, and usage. The features of robust vocabulary instruction include
- choosing appropriate words for deep teaching (i.e., Tier II words).
- explaining new words using student-friendly definitions.
- incorporating frequent and robust exposures of new vocabulary including using the words in multiple contexts.
- understanding multiple facets of word meaning and the relationship between words.
- integrating examples and non-examples of new words and checking for student understanding.
- engaging the students with new vocabulary through both explicit instruction and intentional, informal follow-up classroom opportunities such as through writing activities, classroom discourse, and other texts.
"Conceptualizing Tier II words was meant to be a heuristic way for mentally organizing new words so that as you're choosing words for kids, you can think of two characteristics – a word that's not high frequency, or that kids are going to meet every day, and a word that kids are going to meet in a lot of different texts."
Dictionary Resources for Student-Friendly Definitions of Tier II Words:
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About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests and does not constitute an endorsement by The Windward Institute or The Windward School.