Episode 42 - “Bring Words to Life”: Vocabulary in the Classroom with Margaret McKeown, PhD

Episode Summary

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."


Learn more about Dr. McKeown

Dictionary Resources for Student-Friendly Definitions of Tier II Words:

Collins Dictionary    OneLook   EtymonlineConnect with Dr. McKeown on Twitter


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READ Podcast is produced by The Windward School and The Windward Institute. READ is hosted by Danielle Scorrano.

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.