A Text-Based Approach to Vocabulary Instruction

January 11, 2023

How did you learn new vocabulary words as a student? Maybe you flipped through endless flashcards or were given a dictionary to try and memorize words in isolation. At Fishtank, we think there is a better way. We believe in the power of a text-based approach to vocabulary instruction that helps students use their background knowledge to engage with and internalize new vocabulary in context.


How do students learn new vocabulary?

There are four key aspects of vocabulary instruction that help students internalize and learn new words.

1. Students need repeated exposure to new words.

If you want students to add new words to their vocabulary, they need to consistently come in contact with those new words. Furthermore, they need to come in contact with those words in context so that they can create meaningful connections between previous knowledge and new vocabulary. 

2. Students need sufficient opportunities to use these new words in activities such as discussions and writing.

As students continually add new words to their vocabulary, they need opportunities to use those words independently. If students are only hearing new words or seeing them during an explicit vocabulary lesson, they won’t internalize these words in a meaningful way. Allowing students to use these new words in conversations and writing ensures that students practice and receive feedback about using these words effectively.  

3. Students need strategies to help them determine word meanings independently.

There are likely far more words you want to teach your students than you have time for. To ensure students aren’t completely lost when they encounter a word you haven’t studied, you can equip them with strategies to determine the meaning of words on their own. Students should always start by asking themselves “What is happening in the text at the point the word is used?” Then, students can employ strategies including pictures, plot, synonyms or antonym context clues to determine meaning. 

4. Students need explicit vocabulary instruction.

There are some words that students won’t be able to infer based on context and therefore need to be explicitly taught. In-depth study of selected words ensures that students can develop the knowledge necessary to engage with rigorous texts and continually build their academic vocabulary.


What does Fishtank’s text-based approach look like?

Fishtank ELA’s text-based approach strategically connects vocabulary to the core texts of each unit. Students learn a portion of their new vocabulary indirectly and unconsciously through daily reading, writing, listening, and speaking routines. Words that require additional attention are taught either explicitly or implicitly based on a teachers’ strategic decision making. Students use vocabulary to answer Key Questions, Target Task Questions, and participate in class discussions.

In an article emphasizing the importance of knowledge building in ELA curricula, Natalie Wexler pointed out that students “need to stick with a topic for days or weeks, encountering the same vocabulary and concepts repeatedly so they will stick.” Fishtank ELA’s text-based approach does just that. Students are exploring new vocabulary throughout the unit, centered around one or more core texts that allow them to engage with new vocabulary often and ultimately internalize these new words.

In practice, there are three phases to the text-based approach.

1. Determine the priority of words to study.

As you prepare to dive into a new unit with students, intellectual prep is crucial to determine how vocabulary words will be introduced and how students will interact with those words throughout the unit. Tier II and Tier III vocabulary words are identified at the unit level in each Fishtank ELA unit and again at the lesson level when they are first introduced. You have the flexibility to determine how to introduce them to your individual students. 

When determining the priority of words to students, you want to think of the two different types of vocabulary words that can be found within Fishtank: Words to teach quickly and words to study in-depth. 

2. Decide how to introduce the new vocabulary words.

Once you have determined which words can be taught quickly and which require in-depth study, you can plan how to introduce them to students. Words that have a concrete meaning, may be familiar to students, or are specific to a particular text will likely be words to teach quickly with a drop-in definition. Words that are key to understanding the text, may be abstract, have multiple meanings, or reflect unfamiliar topics are likely words you want to study in-depth. 

For those words you want to teach quickly, you can employ the implicit instruction strategies found in the Teacher Tools for ELA (available to all Fishtank users). The strategies include teaching students to use context clues, using drop-in definitions, using word parts, and using other resources within the text. 

For those words you want to study further, you can employ the explicit instruction routine found in the Teacher Tools for ELA (available to all Fishtank users). The routine includes these five steps: Introduce the word, give a student-friendly definition of the word, characterize the word, give an example of how you might use the word, engage students in the meaning of the word. 

Additionally, Fishtank ELA lessons offer guidance on explicitly teaching vocabulary and engaging students with those new words. CS 300 Elementary School’s 3rd grade teacher Meagan Kelly found that Fishtank’s guidance on “incorporating that vocabulary at the beginning of the lesson and explicitly teaching it has made a huge difference. Kids are using that vocabulary organically within conversations and in their writing.” 

3. Plan for strategic reinforcement of new vocabulary words. 

As students continually add new words to their vocabulary over the course of a unit, and throughout the entire school year, it is important to provide them with opportunities to practice using those words. In practice, this can mean drawing attention to vocabulary words when they appear in Key Questions or Target Tasks and modeling how to use those words when answering, quickly reviewing words at the start of a lesson to activate working memory, providing sentence stems that include the vocabulary words, and teaching students to use a glossary or word wall.


Looking for additional guidance to employ a text-based approach to vocabulary instruction? 

Fishtank Plus for ELA has you covered! At the unit level, Fishtank Plus subscribers have access to enhanced vocabulary packages that include ready-made vocabulary cards with definitions and images, unit level priority words to study with students, and access to Unit Launches that guide the intellectual prep process. 

At the lesson level, Plus users have access to additional guidance as well. While all Fishtank ELA lessons are designed with all students in mind, Enhanced Lesson Plans (available with Fishtank Plus) have added strategies to support all learners, specifically Multilingual Learners. There are opportunities noted to reinforce vocabulary, activate background knowledge, and guidance on the use of word walls and vocabulary logs. 

Outside of the individual units and lessons, Fishtank Plus subscribers have access to additional Teacher Tools for vocabulary instruction. Subscribers can find guidance on determining the priority vocabulary words for a unit and how to incorporate them into lessons, strategies to support a range of learners during vocabulary instruction, and access our library of vocabulary reviews games. 

Finally, you can participate in Fishtank’s Professional Learning program. The professional learning team offers a Choice Session for participants all about our approach to vocabulary instruction. One Professional Learning participant, middle school teacher Janice Bligen, shared why the Vocabulary Session was particularly beneficial for her and her students:  “Vocabulary is something that could get lost throughout the year. The PL session leaders purposely show you how you can add vocabulary to the lessons as you are going and show the different ways that you can use definitions and actually spend time on vocabulary instruction. The session was really helpful because I'm a big vocabulary person with my students. Vocabulary helps them understand the things that they're reading and makes them feel more confident about what they're reading.”

Ready to bring our text-based approach to your classroom? Get started with Fishtank ELA today! Upgrade to Fishtank Plus for access to additional Teacher Tools including our library of vocabulary review games.

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