All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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About vocabulary

It's not always easy to distinguish between vocabulary and the other building blocks of adolescent literacy. For instance, in order to comprehend text, one has to know what the words mean. And while word study focuses on sounding out and recognizing words, it involves the learning of new vocabulary, too.

However, because vocabulary plays such a key role in reading, and because so many kids are in need of effective vocabulary instruction, literacy experts tend to define it as a discrete category all its own.

Researchers have found that by the time kids enter kindergarten, they already exhibit vast differences in the numbers of words they know. Children of relatively affluent, well-educated parents often arrive at school with a working vocabulary of 5,000 or so words, while low-income kids often enter school knowing only 2,500, and that gap tends to widen over the years unless schools make special efforts to close it.1 (And beware: whatever they might promise, off-the-shelf commercial materials aren't likely to give struggling readers the intensive help they need. Basal readers typically teach around 500 words per school year, which translates to about 6,000 words by 12th grade. That adds up to only a small portion of the 75,000-120,000 words that college-bound students ought to have in their vocabularies.)

But it's not just the number of words that matters. Students also need to know different kinds of words, ranging from the most common everyday terms to those that are more unusual and academic.

In order to help teachers decide where to focus their efforts, researchers Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan describe three different categories — or "tiers" — of words in their book, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. Tier 1 includes common, everyday words that most kids know and probably don't need to be taught (e.g., house, anyway, other, and so on). Tier 2 includes words that might not come up so frequently at home and among friends, but which do often appear in schoolbooks, newspapers, formal documents, and the like (e.g., residence, regardless, and alternative). And Tier 3 includes rarely used words (e.g., billet, hitherto) and terms used mainly in specific content areas (e.g., isotope, metonymy).

Literacy experts advise teachers to focus their vocabulary instruction mostly on Tier 2 words, and to teach Tier 3 words only when they come up (such as in preparation for a chemistry unit on elements and isotopes).

Further, researchers argue that the most common approach to teaching vocabulary — providing students with a word list on Monday then quizzing them on Friday — doesn't work. Kids don't really learn and remember words unless they see them many times in print, use them many times in their classroom discussions and written texts, and continue to see, hear, and use them subsequently.

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Next steps

  • Make it a regular activity.

    While vocabulary instruction is a regular part of the curriculum in most elementary schools, it tends to tail off in the upper grades. However, students continue to need help throughout grades K-12, especially if they're trying to make up for limited vocabulary learning in the pre-school years. That's not to say that vocabulary lessons should take up entire class periods, though — regular, 10-15 minute activities will be far more effective than a handful of hour-long sessions.

  • Teach more by teaching less.

    Not only is it ineffective to make students memorize random words, but it's counter-productive to give them too many words at one time. Given that some students are many thousands of words short of a decent vocabulary, teachers may be tempted to assign them long word lists to study. However, that's more likely to overwhelm kids than to get them to learn and remember anything. In the long run, teachers can have a greater impact on vocabulary by giving students repeated exposures to 5-10 useful new words every week, rather than by drilling them on 20 or more words at a time (most of which will be forgotten within a couple of months).

  • Use new vocabulary in the classroom.

    Researchers have found that it usually takes 10-15 exposures for new words to stick in people's minds, and those words stick better when used in the flow of conversation, rather than studied as part of a list. When choosing new terms for study, teachers should look ahead to see what students will be reading about and discussing in the coming weeks, and after teaching the words' meanings, they should reinforce the new vocabulary by using it often and encouraging students to use it themselves.

  • Teach synonyms, antonyms, and alternate meanings of words.

    Students will have more success learning and remembering words if they study them along with clusters of related terms. Further, teachers should point out those words that mean different things in different contexts (e.g, the use of the term reaction in chemistry and its use in everyday conversation), helping students to appreciate the nuances of the language.

  • Show students what to do when they come across new words.

    Reading teachers often advise students to look for "context cues" to help them make sense of new words. In other words, students are supposed to figure out what the rest of the sentence or paragraph means and then make an educated guess as to the term in question. But students may need more specific guidance than that — teachers may want to show them exactly how to look up the word in a dictionary, for example, or to search for the term on the Web, in order to find a few more examples in which the word is used in a sentence.

  • Teach specialized vocabulary in the content areas.

    Teachers in the content areas have a responsibility to teach the specialized terms (e.g., mitosis), or specialized meanings of common words (e.g., mathematicians' understanding of the words square and root), that students are about to encounter in class. Periodically, they ought look ahead in the textbook or syllabus to see what terms will be used, check to see whether students know those terms already, and explain those as needed.

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More resources

  • Visit our library of essential articles on vocabulary instruction.

  • Just Read, Florida! offers guides to using a range of vocabulary strategies in the classroom.

  • The ReadWriteThink website, hosted by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, features many lesson plans related to vocabulary instruction, which gives students the responsibility to choose new words for study.

  • is a terrific, free website that lets teachers analyze vocabulary in a given text before teaching it. For example, the teacher can cut and paste a textbook chapter into the website and it will highlight the most frequently used words, highlight the "academic" terms, suggest clusters of synonyms, and more.

  • Curriculum Services of Canada offers a free, 14-page guide to the use of "word walls" in content area courses.

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1Hart, T., & Risley, B. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

ACT (2006). Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading. Ames, IA: Author.

Bates, L., Breslow, N., and Hupert, N. (2009). Five states’ efforts to improve adolescent literacy (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2009–No. 067). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands.

Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. (2006). Reading next: A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy: A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Graham, S. and Perin, D. (2007). Writing next. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Haynes, M. (2005). Reading at risk: How states can respond to the crisis in adolescent literacy. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Boards of Education.

Heller, R. and Greenleaf, C.L. (2007, June). Literacy instruction in the content areas: getting to the core of middle and high school improvement. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2005). Creating a culture of literacy: A guide for middle and high school principals. Reston, VA: Author.

National Association of State Boards of Education.(2009). State Actions to Improve Adolescent Literacy: Results from NASBE's State Adolescent Literacy Network. Arlington, VA: Author.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). (2004). On Reading, Learning to Read, and Effective Reading Instruction: An Overview of What We Know and How We Know It. (NCTE Guidelines by the Commission on Reading). Urbana, IL: Author.

National Governors Association. (2005). Reading to achieve: A governor’s guide to adolescent literacy. Washington, DC: National Governors Association, Center for Best Practices.

Short, D. J., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2007). Double the work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners: A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Southern Regional Education Board (2009). A critical mission: Making adolescent reading an immediate priority. Atlanta. GA: Author.

Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D., Rissman, L. M., Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J. Francis, D. J, Rivera, M. O., Lesaux, N. (2007). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents: A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Murray, C. S., & Kosanovich, M. (2008). Effective instruction for adolescent struggling readers: A practice brief. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Murray, C. S., & Kosanovich, M. (2008). Effective instruction for adolescent struggling readers: A practice brief. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Hart, T., & Risley, B. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
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Applebee, A., & Langer, J. (2006). The state of writing instruction in America’s schools: What existing data tell us. Albany, NY: Center on English Learning and Achievement.