Powerful Vocabulary Instruction In Read Alouds

There’s no question the humble read aloud is a truly powerful teaching tool.  Of the many, many reasons this is true, one of the biggest is the rich vocabulary they contain.  The elaboration and the figurative language, and the play on words that so often appears in read alouds is a lot of what makes them so enjoyable.  In fact, did you know that picture books contain more rare words than the average college student will use in conversation?  So it goes without saying that read alouds are a solid tool for vocabulary instruction.  But, given that we can only choose a select few to pull out for direct instruction during an interactive read aloud, we are hit with an immediate question.  Of all the possible words to teach in any given read aloud, which vocabulary words should make the cut?  

The tendency is to go for the biggest or the most obscure.  Kids will not likely have ever heard these words before, so intuition might tell us to hone in on these.  But these are not the words we should focus on.  Which ones are??

To answer that, it’s important to understand the three tiers of words.  For this, I’m going to borrow from the very informative book, Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan.  Here’s what they say about the three tiers of words:

Tier 1 words

The most basic of words–simple nouns and adjectives and high-frequency words (dog, look, party, warm).  Most small children use these words in their everyday conversation, and need little to no instruction.  

Tier 2 words

High-utility words that will come up across contexts or domains (precede, benefit, difference, maintain).   These words won’t likely come up a lot in normal conversation, but they will appear a lot across subjects and in text.  

Tier 3 words

The most domain-specific and obscure words.  These words are rarely used in speech and won’t come up much in reading (epidermis, seismograph, hibiscus).  These words require context, and therefore should be taught within context, like a science lesson about earthquakes for the word seismograph.  

Now, the big question:  When doing a read aloud, which vocabulary words should be the focus?  

Definitely not those tier 3 words.  Hopefully, by clarifying the definition of those words, that reasoning makes sense.  

That’s why it’s actually the tier 2 words that are the big-bang-for-your-buck read aloud vocabulary words.  The key with these words is high-utility and across contexts.  These words have staying power.  They will come up again and again.  And often, they’ll have multiple meanings depending on the context.  

Here’s an example from the book The Brilliant Deep, by Kate Messmer.   

Your eye probably draws to the word elaborate.  Let’s think about it.  Is it high-utility?  Will kids use and see it again and again and again?  Will they see it across contexts?  Not really.

The word to focus on is teemed.  Why?  Because in different contexts, that word means different things.  This is also a great lesson in spelling, which is often dependent on context.  

The word elaborate can mostly be gleaned from the context all around it.  Not fully knowing this word will also will not interfere with meaning here.

But teemed…kids will most likely only know team, as in a group of people working toward a goal together.  If that’s the only working definition of that word when it’s heard, comprehension could very well be affected.  This word, with just these two definitions, make it cross-context.  They’ll hear it in gym class, hear it when talking about sports, figuratively, as in someone who doesn’t agree–she doesn’t seem to be playing on our team.  They might even hear it as team this pair of pants with that green shirt.   And of course, as it’s used in the context of this book.  

A big difference.  

This kind of exposure to different meanings for words in different contexts is a fantastic vocabulary builder.  You can make it even more effective if images showing the different meanings (when possible) are added.  This provides a concrete visual image for everyone, of course, but is super helpful to your multi-language learners.  

When to teach this read aloud vocabulary?  Before or after the reading?

According to the studies on this done by the authors of Bringing Words to Life, the answer is neither.  The best time to directly teach those words is actually as they occur in the reading.  

Why?  Because context is already there, kids have something meaningful to attach the words to.

But effects on vocabulary building were also just as impactful after the reading, because kids already had the context in mind to pin the words to.  They’d already heard them, so the learning was deep when taught this way as well.  

I hope this provides some clarity about which interactive read aloud vocabulary is the best to focus on.  This understanding will help you more quickly plan lessons, and it should also help you avoid the all-too easy trap of pausing too often during your read aloud, which of course lengthens your lessons…shortening the time you have available for other things.  

Which leads to just one more tip. 

For each read aloud session, try to limit how many words to focus on to just a few.  Choose only the ones that will impede comprehension.  

Could you use a thinking partner in deciding which words to explicitly teach during your upcoming interactive read aloud?  Reach out!  Helping teachers make sense of the complex world of literacy instruction is the whole reason I’m here!  We can set up a virtual coaching call so that no matter where you live, you can access the support you need, any day of the week.  Let’s partner together to make your instruction as strong as it can be!

Related Posts:  What’s the Best Way to Teach Vocabulary?, Want Students to Succeed in Reading?  Build Background Knowledge, 10 Powerful Vocabulary Instruction Tips Every Teacher Needs to Know

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