Four High-Utility Vocabulary Strategies

This week’s tip focuses on vocabulary.  It seems as though lots of great vocabulary strategies have come my way in the past few weeks, and so I’m putting a few of them together here.  They start with the ones for our youngest learners, with the smallest vocabularies, and work their way up toward strategies to challenge some of our older and more vocabulary-proficient students.

1) Outside the Book: Enrich your teaching about books for beginning readers, which won’t have many challenging words in them, by “beefing up” the conversations you have about them.  If the characters in the book are making cookies, you might be able to introduce the word scrumptious in conversation, for example.

For these remaining strategies, pull the vocabulary words in question from the high-utility, unknown words in the books you have worked on with your students.  (These would be Isabel Beck’s Tier 2 words – words that children need to learn, but are not commonly spoken (Tier 1) words – and are also not complex, content-specific (Tier 3) words.)

2) Questions, Reasons, Examples: Ask children, “Would you prefer to budge a sleeping lamb or a ferocious lion?  Why?”  Students should answer in a sentence, “I would prefer…”

3) Making Choices: Say to the children, if any of these things I say might be examples of someone clutching something, say “clutching.”  If not, don’t say anything.

  • holding on tightly to a purse
  • holding a fistful of money
  • softly petting a cat’s fur
  • holding on to branches while climbing a tree
  • blowing bubbles and trying to catch them

4) Writing an Obituary:  Demonstrate for students how they could write an obituary for a particular word, being sure to show all they know about a word by the way they describe it in the obituary.  For example, an obituary might begin: “Voracious, a greedy adjective, died yesterday of obesity…”

5) Developing an Infomercial: Convince or persuade someone to “buy” your word – for example, “Tired of thinking before speaking?  Want to eat everything on the dinner table? Buy rashness…”

All five of these activities come from two wonderful books on developing strong, effective vocabulary instruction – and each contain many strategies other than the ones above.  Let me know if you’d like to take a look at either….


Beck, McKeown and Kucan, Bringing Words to Life,  2002

Holbrook and Salinger, High Definition, 2010