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Building on the Power of
Incidental Vocabulary Learning

By Cathy Puett Miller

Note: This final article in a series on vocabulary instruction builds upon previous articles. If you missed the earlier articles, you might want to take at least a brief look at them before proceeding. (See sidebar 2 for links to previous articles in this series.)

As we already know, incidental learning plays a critical role in vocabulary acquisition. Researchers Nagy and Scott point to three characteristics of word knowledge critical to understanding incidental learning and vocabulary instruction in general:

  1. Word knowledge is incremental. Readers need many exposures to a word in different contexts before they know" it.
  2. Word knowledge is multidimensional. Many words have multiple meanings and serve different functions.
  3. Word knowledge is interrelated. The knowledge of one word aids the understanding of other words (i.e. urban, suburban).

(Promoting Students Vocabulary Development: An Overview)

What Are Tier Words?

* Tier 1: Words students are likely to know from their oral language schema.
* Tier 2: Words that appear commonly in a wide variety of texts, and in the written and oral language of students.
* Tier 3: Words that appear rarely and are used only in specific domains or subjects (i.e., optic). They are central to building conceptual understanding within those domains.

Beck and McKeown, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction

Put your students in situations that allow them to experience all three types of learning. The following 15-minute small group activity is an easy way to do that; use it at least twice a week. Build excitement by presenting it as a collaborative race.


Quickly read with students the class list of Intriguing Words. Add to the list words that are central to concepts youre teaching in various content areas, and words you taught directly as Tier 2 Words (See sidebar 1 for details). Invite students to work together to harvest five to seven words from the list. Explain that they may select words they like or words they find interesting. After students have selected their words, strike through those words on the board, but leave them readable. Now the small group activity can begin.

The Activity

  1. Break students into small teams. Assign each team one word from among those harvested. Designate a scribe and a reader. The scribe for each team records the teams ideas on paper or index cards.
  2. Each teams task is to list as many synonyms and related terms for their assigned word as they can. This is a fast-paced, brainstorming team affair; they only have 8-10 minutes. (Set a timer; feel free to adjust minutes to fit students abilities). If no one on the team knows a words meaning, dictionaries are allowed. (Have several handy to save time). Even when they use an outside source, however, students must generate an organic" definition in their own words.
  3. When time expires, have each team pass its card to the team on its left. In the next five minutes (set the timer again), a designated reader should quickly read the card to the team members, who clarify the words definition via their own knowledge or a dictionary, and then adjust it for accuracy. Encourage the use of specific strategies to understand new words. (Read, Write, Think, a partnership between the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the Verizon Foundation has a lesson plan for teaching the use of context clues.) Rotate among the teams and offer such sample sentences as The robust young football player looked like he could tackle three men and keep on going" to guide students to accurate definitions. Remind students that the goal is not to criticize, but to come to a correct meaning for the word. (If your students are competitive, you might add a points system to the game.)
  4. Finally, have scribes transfer the words and confirmed definitions into the classroom dictionary."

More from the Vocabulary Instruction Series

Be sure to see all these articles in Cathy Puett Miller’s series on effective vocabulary instruction.:

* The Face of Effective Vocabulary Instruction
* The Hidden Side of Strategic Vocabulary Instruction
* The Wonderful World of Words
Building on the Power of Incidental Vocabulary Learning

Through regular use of this activity, students will become masters at figuring out what words mean. Not only will their word consciousness and the number of words they know grow, but students understanding of words will deepen. Combining such collaborative activities with regular doses of the other elements to incidental learning of vocabulary (reading aloud and independent silent reading) can impact childrens test scores, their writing, and their motivation and ability to read.


A. Students can create the dictionary on the computer in a WORD document, PowerPoint Presentation, or other format to practice computer skills. B. Place only one word on each page. Use dividers for each letter of the alphabet. Encourage students to add comments and sample sentences as they understand the word at a deeper level. C. Students can practice alphabetizing skills when inserting new pages. D. Locate the dictionary in a place thats easily accessible to students during reading and writing activities. E. Create laminated or card stock bookmarks listing how to figure out word meanings" strategies or common prefixes, suffixes, and roots. These can aid students during the team activity and when they read independently. F. Use the dictionary yourself when teaching and interacting with students.


About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller is dedicated to promoting literacy with educators, families, children and family-friendly organizations. Having practiced as an independent literacy consultant for eleven years, this year she launched a new company, TLA, Inc., dedicated to providing educator in-service training, parent workshops, and keynote presentations for special events (PreK through 12th Grade). She continues to conduct independent reading research, and designs and implements reading initiatives in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy, parent involvement, and volunteer tutoring. She currently is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's t Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators
Cathy's freelance writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,, Education World, the Reading Tub, and Babyzone. She also reviews children's books at Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. Her signature is her passion for connecting children and families to positive, powerful experiences with reading; she believes there is a book for every child. Visit Cathy's Web site at The Literacy Ambassador.