‘Word Nerds’ and Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

I came across the ‘Word Nerds’ book on Pinterest. Immediately caught by the unashamedly dorky title and the joyous cover photo, I did a little research, liked what I read, and ordered the book.

Word Nerds

I’d always had a niggling thought that what I was doing with words wasn’t helping to building vocabulary. I do spelling, I encourage kids to look up words in the dictionary and online, but my vocabulary instruction was lacking. My main activity revolved around one session: letter writing to our ‘Student of the Week’. The students enjoy the task and are really comfortable with the letter genre, which then means they can use some mental energy to include some more interesting vocabulary in their writing. I’ll pull 10 words out of the dictionary, talk about their meanings and then the students choose which to use in their letter, getting a Class Dojo point for each one.

But even though there was clear enjoyment in the use of new and fancy words, they rarely showed up again in student writing, and certainly never in their dialogue. Disappointing.

So Word Nerds arrived in the mail. It was easy to read and clearly laid out a plan for a deep and cohesive way to build vocabulary. Research, experts and results were quoted so I spent my holidays taking notes and then, first week back in term three, I started implementing the scheme. So far I’ve finished the first two weeks of the program but I’ll cover just the first week in this post. I haven’t had a chance to get to all the activities, but I thought I’d explain what I’ve done so far and how it’s going.

Before I do, let me lay out some information from the book.

1. Students from underprivileged backgrounds can enter school with half the vocabulary of students with middle class backgrounds.

2. Vocabulary knowledge is a reliable indicator of future academic success.

3. Children need to learn between 4 and 8,000 words a year to build a vocabulary necessary for tertiary and white-collar pursuits.

4. Most teachers (surveyed by the authors) report that they do little, if any, vocabulary building, or that they felt that what they did was ineffective (that made me feel a bit better).

Now, clearly teaching even 2,000 words (let alone 4,000) a year seems like a hill too large to climb, even with my middle/upper-socioeconomic group. Fortunately, Isabel Beck, in her book ‘Bringing Words To Life‘ (which I am in the middle of reading now), divides words into 3 tiers and explains the best group to focus on.

Tier 1: words that are ‘everyday’ – children come to school knowing many of these. Words such as look, party, sometimes, blonde.

Tier 2: words that are less frequently used but add colour, detail and nuances to communication across the board – words such as resonate, impartial, despondent.

Tier 3: topic specific words, such as carbine, isotope, stamen, camber.

Here’s Isabel Beck talking about the first two tiers.

The aim is to focus on tier 2 words and to use tier 1 words and the experiences students already have to create strong and numerous connections to new words. To build their vocabulary schemata so they have a stack of words to draw on in any situation, so they can understand authors’ intent and increase their reading fluency so that decoding creates fewer speed bumps on the road to enjoying reading, creating powerful writing and learning from texts.

So, where to start?

This term our Grade 5 concept is ‘Resilience’. We’re exploring this through drawing on our prior studies of migrant experiences (term two) and life on the Australia gold fields (term one). We’re also studying bush fires and floods to cover our geography component and talking about personal resilience – how to develop it, what it looks like, why it matters.

Before the holidays we (there are three Grade 5 teachers at my school) sent home a list of topic words for students to discuss with their families. When we came back from holidays I gave pairs of students a fresh copy of the vocab sheet and told them that Carlos (the class teddy bear – often used as a thinking tool for identifying problem areas) and I had been discussing the word list over the holidays and he thought there were between 10 and 15 words on the list that were very difficult. I asked the students to highlight those words in orange. Then, in yellow, the students had to guess and highlight Carlos’ 15 – 20 moderately tricky words. Words that maybe Carlos knew but couldn’t explain. The rest of the words were highlighted green. We then discussed our choices as a group and came to a consensus on which were the most challenging words. Voila! There was the list we’d be using to start our Word Nerds lessons.

One pair's sheet.

One pair’s sheet.

Lesson One

I chose 5 words from the list:

unprecedented, debris, deluge, embankment, and havoc.

I wrote the words on cards and put them to the side, then wrote some cloze sentences on the board.

The students discussed the sentences and which words they knew that might fit. Then we talked about what those words had in common.

Then I revealed the words and we talked about the meanings – did we get any clues? Then we tried to fit each word into a space.

If I'd known I was going to use this for the blog I'd have written a lot neater. Like I *normally* do. I assure you.

If I’d known I was going to use this for the blog I’d have written a lot neater. Like I *normally* do. Ahem.

The last step was to get a few students to do dictionary research and we wrote the definition on the board. Unprecedented raised interesting discussion about prefixes and suffixes. We removed ‘un’ and ‘ed’, but one child said ‘pre’ was also a prefix so we looked up ‘precedent’ and also ‘cedent’.

I took a photo of our thinking then put the word cards at the top of the board, ready for the next session.

Lesson 2

In this lesson I introduced the vocabulary books. I’d taken the time to pre-draw the frames for the children with speed/fine motor issues so that they didn’t spend all lesson ruling, plus they then had a neat version to refer back to in future. I don’t have a photo of the empty frames but on the board it looked like this:

Next time I'll use a ruler, I promise.

Next time I’ll use a ruler, I promise.

I have six EAL (English as Another Language) students, so I thought the definition would be best in their own language.

In Word Nerds they give their students photocopied sheets. I’ve always disliked the idea of sticking things over blank, perfectly useable pages. Plus I think it takes no time to teach students to rule neatly and is good fine-motor practice. They also used a projector to create far neater frames on their board, which I’ll get around to. One day.

For the second lesson we focused on just two words, unprecedented and debris. We talked about the meaning from the dictionary and students could either copy what I wrote or put it into their own words. Then we listed synonyms and examples, and then antonyms and non examples. The students were really creative and I was impressed with their thinking. This part is where the explicit nature of the instruction really come into its own, because obviously some students have broader vocabularies than others. So when someone says rubble as a synonym for debris we get to discuss the nuances in language and so, with at least 3 synonyms and 3 antonyms copied down, we now have 7 words instead of 1 and 14 instead of 2, and when we’re done we have 35 instead of 7. Of course not all are new words but to some (and especially my EAL students) quite a few are.

In the margin column, after they have filled in the boxes, each student writes their own 7+ sentence using the focus word. This lets me check their understanding. I encourage them to say their sentence to the person next to them and see if it sounds right before writing it down. Making the students use seven or more words mean they hopefully create more detailed and expressive sentences. Not just I saw some debris, but I saw some debris after the flood.

I looked through their books that afternoon and gave stamps to students who had used the words correctly and whose sentences were seven or more words and left a little sticky note in the books of other students. Being vocabulary books, it’s pretty important to correct all spelling errors since the whole idea is that these books are used for reference throughout the year. Knowing that there might be a stamp next to their work also encouraged students to really look at the feedback and read it. I also think that writing comments on sticky notes is easier to read, plus then students can pull them out after they have made the correction, leaving their book clean and tidy. We completed the remaining words in the next lesson.

This is what it looks like in a student’s book. This photo was taken in week 2 so the words aren’t from the first list.

Probably the worst example I could've chosen to photograph but just look at the surface details, not the actual content of this one.

Probably the worst example I could’ve chosen to photograph but just look at the surface details, not the actual content of this one.


I didn’t get to any of the games in the first week as it was only a 4 day week and we’d taken a long time to write everything down. But the good news was that on Monday in week 2 students told me they’d already started noticing the vocabulary words in their personal reading. A good start!

If anyone reading has any questions, comments or advice please leave below. Thanks for reading! The second part of this reflection is here.