The Nuance of Vocabulary Instruction

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Those in the field of education are vitally aware that vocabulary is a strong indicator of academic and reading achievement.  Although we can generally agree that copying definitions from the dictionary will not help students learn new words, teachers still seem to feel at loss with how to best approach vocabulary instruction.  According to the National Reading Panel’s synthesis on vocabulary research, there are 8 major practices that directly impact vocabulary instruction and reading achievement:

  1.  Provide direct instruction of vocabulary words for specific texts.
    • explicitly teaching students words that will help them comprehend a lesson or text better (such as academic, content specific words or even words that are essential to understanding a literary text such as a poem or novel).
  2.  Ensure repetition and multiple exposure to vocabulary items.
    • research shows that average students needs a minimum of 14-17 repeated exposures to words; while struggling students, at-risk students, and ELLs need as many as 40 repeated exposures! (Marzano 2004)
    • an “exposure” should mean exposure to words in context through wide reading, discussion, and frequent intentional use of the word by teachers.
  3. Select words that students will find most useful in a variety of contexts.
    • because vocabulary development does appear to follow a developmental trajectory (Biemiller, 2001), the explicit instruction of high-frequency words is extremely important for those still learning to read.
  4. Explicitly structure vocabulary tasks. 
    • be explicit in your directions for what to do with vocabulary tasks.
  5. Develop an effective use of technology to help engage students.
    • Effective vocabulary instruction combined with effective use of technology can help encourage vocabulary learning especially for English Language Learners (Silverman and Hines 2009).
  6. Encourage wide reading to create incidental learning opportunities.
    • This does not mean that direct instruction should not happen.  Ideally, students need to be doing a LOT of reading in order to develop the ability to process incidental exposure to vocabulary words.  Students will more likely pick up on incidental exposure after direct instruction in vocabulary strategies so that they know what to do when they approach unfamiliar words during reading.
  7. Don’t depend on ONE vocabulary instruction method.
    • Design tasks that expose students to vocabulary terms and meanings through multi-sensory learning.  Students should draw, act, write, read, and discuss vocabulary words in multiple contexts.
  8. Actively engage students beyond definitional knowledge of words.

Number eight is where I’d really like to focus this post, especially when teaching vocabulary to Deaf and Hard of Hearing students.

Too often vocabulary instruction is done at the definitional level.  Students are given a list of words, maybe exposed to some example sentences that use the words.  Quite often, teachers go through the words and give “signed-equivalents” for these vocabulary words based on definitions studied.  The problem with this type of task is that tier 2 words often have multiple meanings and a single sign is hardly appropriate for words in context.  Even if multiple signs are given, student is still learning a signed-equivalent which is not the same as understanding a words meaning and/or how to use the word.

For example:

Consider the word SHREWD.  what does the word mean?  What do vocabulary workbooks and “student-friendly” definitions often state the word means?  How would you sign the word?  Let’s look at some definitions from vocabulary workbooks:

Vocabulary Workshop

  • Shrewd (adj.) showing clever judgment and practical understanding

  • Shrewd: Marked by practical hardheaded intelligence

Building Better Vocabulary

  • Shrewd:  (adj.) smart

Can you determine which sign is often used when giving students the definition?  Would you be considered shrewd if you guessed “SMART”?  Is smart an accurate way to define shrewd?  Often students walk away understanding that “shrewd” is equivalent to “smart”.  This begets sentences such as:

  • I am shrewd because I got an A on my math test!
  • I am not shrewd because I can’t read good.
  • Shrewd people are good at Math.
  • I was shrewd mouth to my mom yesterday.

From these 4 sentences we can tell that the student understands the word to mean “smart” and the student also understands that the word is used as an adjective.  Would you say the student clearly understands the word shrewd?  

What teachers often forget when teaching vocabulary in this way is that all words have “nuance.”  Teaching vocabulary in the context of a single definition or sign (or even a set of definitions and signs) can also restrict you when you start to try and translate texts with students.  Being able to pick up on the nuance of words is extremely valuable to comprehension of complex texts.  We teach students that authors can be very picky in their word choice, which means students should be very picky in their definitions.  So how do we teach students the nuance of words?  We need to actively engage students with words and word meanings.  This means: exposing students to words in a variety of contexts.  Developing working definitions for words that go beyond copying from vocabulary workbooks or dictionaries.  Noting when studied vocabulary words pop-up in everyday contexts (did your parent use the word? Did you see the word on the news? was the word in a textbook or novel you read?).  Providing a variety of visual and textual representations of words.  Showing students examples of correct usage vs. incorrect usage and frequently assessing whether or not they can identify an incorrect usage.  And most importantly: discussing and questioning word and sign usage.

We need to stop and frequently ask ourselves as teachers and (ask those around us): am I choosing signs that accurately convey what I mean?  Do the words I choose for my writing accurately convey what I mean?  Is there a better way to sign or write this?  Why do we sign or write it this way?  In what situation/context could I use this word?  Could I say or sign this differently?  How would I define (and re-define) this word?

I want to share an example of a lesson I did with students when trying to teach the word: APPEAL.


I showed the word on the projector along with 4 example sentences for them to read.  I asked them to read the word and sentences and then let me know what they think the word APPEAL means.  The first thing a few students did was sign—>

I asked them not to show me the sign, but to carefully read the sentences and think about the meaning.

  • Even though he was found guilty, Fred will appeal the decision.
  • Margaret approached her teacher and made an appeal to change her grade.
  • The principal is appealing for any information about the bathroom vandalism.
  • We are studying about emotional, logical, and ethical appeals in English class.

We discussed the context surrounding each sentence and then I stopped to ask if the sign shown above in the gif was accurate?  Many of them realized it wasn’t.  We talked about what other signs could be used (some signs that were suggested were:  “discuss”, “look for”, “disagree with”, “ask”, “argue”, “persuade”)  and after much discussion, students realized that a “single sign” may not be appropriate for all sentences.

My students were now ready to delve into nuance.  The definition of appeal from their dictionaries was “an urgent request”.  I showed students two sentences that were the same although one sentence used the word APPEAL and the other used the word ASK.

  • Margo appealed to Jennifer for a pencil.   /  Margo asked Jennifer for a pencil.
  • Henry appealed to his teacher for an extension. / Henry asked his teacher for an extension.
  • Mrs. Smith appealed to the sales clerk to help her find the cat food. / Mrs. Smith asked the sales clerk to help her find the cat food.

I went ahead and demonstrated what the first pair of sentences would look like.

My “appeal” went like this:  (looking distraught) “Jennifer, I lost my pencil and do not have a back up one.  The teacher refuses to give me one and I really need to pass this test!  You know we lose points if we don’t use pencil.  Do you think I could borrow a pencil from you?  I promise I’ll give it back before the end of class!”

My “ask” looked like this:  “Jennifer, can I borrow a pencil from you?”

I had students volunteer to demonstrate the next two paired sentences.  We discussed the difference between the APPEAL and the ASK.  Students were able to demonstrate the nuance behind the word APPEAL.  We came up with a definition that involved persuading someone.  One student even suggested that an appeal needed to have some kind of “evidence” or “support” to go with it.  This further extended their understanding of rhetorical appeals which we were learning during our persuasive unit.  I was able to frequently use the word appeal when discussing their persuasive speeches without getting blank stares.  Now they are ready to go deeper into the word’s meaning by taking a look at the word “appeal” from the context of:  “The idea of going to Paris for spring break sounds very APPEALING!”

Many of you will note that we spent a lot of time on just ONE WORD.  I did not go through a list of 10 vocabulary words with my students and honestly had I tried to approach a 10-word list in this way, it would have overwhelm students.  I’m personally an advocate of the word-a-day approach but it is not an approach for everyone.  It also does not mean that I do not extend vocabulary through other means (we do vocabulary study using content specific words, or through read-aloud where I stop to annotate and discuss words).

So, how do we give students a plethora of words while at the same time helping them understand, read, and use these words in a variety of contexts?  The key is to be consciously selective of your words.  Make sure the words you select build on one another.  Help students make connections between when and how words are used.  Do away with strict adherence to vocabulary workbooks…or if you use them, stop to take a look at how the chapters are structured.  Why are these particular words selected?  What connection do they have with each other as well as what connection do they have with what students are currently learning in class?  Are these words that students can frequently use NOW in different contexts?  Are these words present with intention in the readings they are or will be doing?  Working on vocabulary workbooks, even if words are taught in context of meaningful sentences, is still isolated vocabulary instruction if it is not connected to everything else you do.  It is not valuable to throw vocabulary at students and hope it sticks.  It is not productive to teach vocabulary so that students can regurgitate it on a test and not use it or see the word again in their reading.  And it is down right frustrating for a student to learn a word based on a teacher’s definition and then attempt to use it (like the sentences above), only to find that they still don’t know how to use the word or what the word really means.



Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P. Buenger, A., Butler, S., Eisenhart, C., Gonzalez, N., Hunt, M.,  and Kelsi Urrutia, K. (2010).A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: National Reading Technical Assistance Center, RMC Research Corporation.


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