Saturday, July 24, 2010

Previewing Vocabulary (Sedita)

Joan Sedita contributed this post. Joan received her Masters in Reading Education from Harvard University in 1980 and worked at the Landmark School in Massachusetts until 1998 as a teacher, diagnostician, supervisor of tutorials, and high school principal. She was the founder and director of the Landmark College Preparation Program and director of the Landmark Outreach Teacher Training Program. More recently, Joan has consulted with Massachusetts Department of Education, served as a LETRS trainer, developed curriculum for grades 4-12 and founded Keys to Literacy.

Studies have shown that pre-teaching vocabulary can improve comprehension (Laflamme, 1997; Billmeyer & Barton, 1998). Existing background knowledge is a critical component for comprehension, and word meanings are part of larger knowledge structures, or schema about a topic. Previewing the vocabulary words associated with a given topic enables students to connect their background knowledge to what they are listening to or reading. In order to comprehend while reading, a person must be familiar with at least 90 percent of the words in the text (Hirsch, 2003), and previewing also provides familiarity with unknown words. 

The goal of previewing is to:
• Activate prior knowledge;
• Clear up student misconceptions about word meaning;
• Clarify the meaning of known words in relation to the current context, especially for words with multiple meanings; and
• Provide some initial familiarity with unknown words so students can make sense of the text.

Previewing is about attaching some meaning to unfamiliar words rather than deeply teaching them. It is important to provide in-depth instruction for certain key words, but previewing before reading is not the best time to do this. Graves (2006) notes that the goal of previewing is to provide students with just enough knowledge about words so that they do not “stumble” over them while reading. 

What Words Should Be Previewed?
Teachers should preview words that may be unfamiliar to students but essential to understanding the text. Choosing which words to preview will depend on the students in the class, including issues like grade level, vocabulary and background knowledge, and English proficiency. For students in the same grade level reading the same passage, words for previewing may be different from school to school, and even from classroom to classroom. Teachers must, therefore, use common sense, sensitivity, and knowledge about their students to determine which words to preview. Here are some suggestions to help you determine which words to preview (Sedita, 2005):

• Choose words that are necessary to understand the text and the major concepts in the content lesson or unit of study.
• Choose words that are unfamiliar specialized academic words (e.g., metamorphosis, quadrilateral, oligarchy), and non-specialized academic words (e.g., analyze, relationship, synthesize) that are essential to comprehending the topic of the reading.
• Choose words that are unfamiliar to most of the students.
• Include problematic phrases or figurative language.
• Choose words that have unfamiliar multiple meanings. 

How to Preview Words
Historically, previewing has often meant looking up words in the dictionary and copying the definitions. However, this approach does not transfer knowledge about the word into useful ownership by the student, and it often does not provide enough understanding to help make sense of the reading. Frequently, dictionary definitions are confusing, and they do not connect the meaning of the word to the subject matter or the reading context. It is also a boring task that may even turn students off to wanting to learn new words.

The best way to preview words is to spend a limited amount of time providing a basic understanding about the word. Here are some ways to effectively preview vocabulary:

• Provide synonyms and antonyms: Provide words to students that are related to the preview word, either similar in meaning or opposite in meaning.

• Use everyday language to explain the words: Provide user-friendly definitions, especially as the meaning relates to the context of the reading. Based on many years of research and work with teachers on vocabulary instruction, Beck and McKeown (2007) have developed an approach to teaching words that they call “rich” instruction. This approach uses everyday language to explain the meanings of words. Rich instruction suggests the following be used during previewing:
  • Introduce words through explanations in everyday connected language rather than dictionary definitions
  • Provide several contexts in which the word can be used
  • Provide examples, situations, and questions that are interesting
  • Encourage students to interact with the word right away by asking them to relate to and talk about the word in some way
• Use discussion: Discussion has been found to be an effective way to learn unfamiliar words (McKeown & Beck, 1988; Carlisle and Katz, 2005). When teachers present unfamiliar words in context and ask students to offer possible meanings, the ensuing discussion improves students’ understanding of words. A simple way to review words on a previewing list is for the teacher to facilitate a whole class discussion about the words or to monitor small collaborative group discussions.

• Use collaborative, small groups: Encourage students to work collaboratively to make connections between the words and to check each other’s understanding of the words. 

Click "Read More" to view references

  • Beck, I.L., & McKeown, M.G. (2007). Different ways for different goals, but keep your eye on the higher verbal goals. In R.K. Wagner, A.E. Muse, & K. R. Tannenbaum (Eds.). Vocabulary acquisition: Implications for reading comprehension. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Billmeyer, R., & Barton, M.L. (1998). Teaching reading in the content areas: If not me then who? Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory.
  • Carlisle, J. F., & Katz, L.A. (2005). Word learning and vocabulary instruction. In J. R. Birsh (Ed.). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Graves, M.F. (2006). The vocabulary book. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Hirsch, E.D. (2003). Reading comprehension requires knowledge – of words and the world: Scientific insights into the fourth-grade slump and the nation’s stagnant comprehension scores. American Educator, Spring, 2003. American Federation of Teachers.
  • Laflame, J.G. (1997). The effect of the Multiple Exposure Vocabulary Method and the Target Reading/Writing Strategy on test scores. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 40 (5), 372-381.
  • McKeown, M.G., & Beck, I.L. (1988). Learning vocabulary: Different ways for different goals. Remedial and Special Education, 9, 42-45.
  • Sedita, J. (2005). The key vocabulary routine. Rowley, MA: Keys to Literacy.


  1. Thank you, Joan. I have seen that previewing vocabulary can make the text more comprehensible, too.

    Do you think there are times when you might decide to spend more time teaching a word prior to reading the text...going beyond a brief preview to something more extended?

  2. Joan Sedita7/31/2010

    Thank you, Susan, for posting my piece. The answer to your question is "yes"! Very often the handful of essential words that should be taught in-depth over a period of time will in fact be part of the previewing list. The teacher may choose a few of the preview words to put on a word wall and give a heads up to the students that they will be revisiting these words. There is no single best activity to teach vocabulary - previewing is just one of a combination of direct and indirect activities that should be used. The Key Vocabulary Routine that I developed for training upper grade teachers includes 5 steps for teaching content vocabulary. Previewing is the first step, and teaching a smaller set of words in-depth is the third step.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. A little time spent teaching the words most central to the text does help facilitate comprehension of said text. Word knowledge is essential but not sufficient to enable comprehension.


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