Sunday, April 17, 2011

Selecting Words: An Important Consideration in Explicit Vocabulary Instruction (Fisher & Frey)

This post is courtesy of Drs. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Doug and Nancy are professors at San Diego State University and nationally known for their work with vocabulary and comprehension instruction. Visit their website. They are the co-authors of several professional books for educators, including Word Wise and Content Rich: Five Essential Steps to Teaching Academic Vocabulary.  Key ideas from their book are discussed in this post. In two weeks, Nancy and Doug will post again, elaborating on how to teach vocabulary effectively.

There are a number of instructional components required for students to really learn words. It’s not simply a matter of assigning words, having students define those words, and then testing them on the words. Rather, the evidence suggests that students need explicit instruction in word meanings, repeated exposure to words, opportunities for wide reading, and experiences using the words in the presence of their peers (e.g., Fisher, Blachowicz, & Watts-Taffe, 2011; Graves, 2006).

One of the most difficult aspects of quality vocabulary instruction is deciding which words are worthy of being taught. There are clearly defined categories for words, which have become part of the lexicon for vocabulary researchers and teachers. We are all familiar with Tier 1 or general words, Tier 2 or specialized words, and Tier 3 or technical words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Vacca & Vacca, 2007). These categories have guided teachers in the selection of words and facilitated an understanding of the value in learning different kinds of words.

While these categorical systems are helpful, they don’t provide teachers with concrete information about selecting words to teach. To address this, we have attempted to create a series of questions that teachers can ask to determine which words are worthy of being taught. We drew on several well-known vocabulary researchers, including Graves (2006), Hiebert and Kamil (2005), and Nagy (1988) to name the six categories useful in identify which words to teach. Figure 1 contains our questions, organized in six categories: Representative, Repeatable, Transportable, Contextual analysis, Structural analysis, and Cognitive load.

Considerations for Selecting Vocabulary Words
Topic Questions to Ask
  • Is the word representative of a family of words that students should know?
  • Is the concept represented by the word critical to understanding the text?
  • Is the word a label for an idea that students need to know?
  • Does the word represent an idea that is essential for understanding another concept?
  • Will the word be used again in this text? 
    • If so, does the word occur often enough to be redundant?
  • Will the word be used again during the school year?
  • Will the word be used in group discussions?
  • Will the word be used in writing tasks?
  • Will the word be used in other content or subject areas?
Contextual Analysis
  • Can students use context clues to determine the correct or intended meaning of the word without instruction?
Structural Analysis
  • Can students use structural analysis to determine the correct or intended meaning of the word without instruction?
Cognitive Load
  • Have I identified too many words for students to successfully integrate?
Figure 1. Considerations for Selecting Vocabulary Words (Fisher & Fry, 2008)

In our teaching, we have found these categories and questions useful. For example, during a recent unit on disability as part of our integrated health curriculum, we used this system to analyze a primary source document that students were going to read in class as part of their Internet Reciprocal Teaching task. From the article about Phenylketonuria (PKU), we selected condition, inherited, gene, enzyme, recessive, and treatable, based on our knowledge of our students and their existing word knowledge. In doing so, we were able to ensure that students understood these key terms, and thus the information about this disability.

Once the words have been selected, instruction begins. There are a host of great ideas about teaching vocabulary on this blog and in a number of other published resources. To our thinking, these are less helpful if we are not clear about which words need to be taught. Having said that, even selecting words worthy of being taught will be useless if we revert to the “assign, define, test” approach to building students’ knowledge.

In sum, selecting words should be foundational in explicit vocabulary instruction, and there should be instruction!

Editorial Note: For a discussion of The Academic Word List, containing morphological families of scholarly words for older students and English Language Learners, see Academic Families of Words. One might apply Fisher and Frey's six considerations to the words in the list, to determine suitability for instruction. For helping students develop conceptual knowledge of words that meet Fisher and Frey's representative condition, read Kathleen Lord's post. For a discussion of essential words for younger students in primary grades and beginning English Language Learners, see prior posts (and books) by Michael Graves and Andrew Biemiller. For a discussion of how to understand words through structural analysis--the fifth consideration suggested by Fisher and Frey--see Morphology (MA) and follow the embedded links to specific posts concerning morphology (e.g., Bellomo, Bowers, Ebbers, Eddy, Filippini, and Henry).


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bring words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Fisher, P. J., Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Watts-Taffe, S. (2011). Vocabulary instruction: Three contemporary issues. In D. Lapp & D. Fisher (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (3rd ed.) (pp. 252-257). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Word wise and content rich: Five essential steps to teaching academic vocabulary. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Graves, M. F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning & instruction. New York: Teachers College.

Hiebert, E. H., & Kamil, M. L. (Eds.). (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Nagy, W. E. (1988). Teaching vocabulary to improve reading comprehension. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Vacca, R. T., & Vacca, J. A. (2007). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


  1. Is there a concrete method to lead teachers to word choices that are central to understanding a theme in a fiction text?

    The area I've been challenged with helping teachers discern if their word is "representative." The questions to ask for this category reveal the heart of the challenge: how to know what the central concept might be. While a non-fiction text might have new concepts stated clearly, fiction texts used in dialogic reading are not so clear.

  2. Thanks much! Question: For ELLs, do you include cognate-facilitation (a shared root) in the 5th category-- structural analysis? Example: For Spanish-dominant ELL students, the English word insect could be inferred if they know the Spanish word insecto.

    Ps... I echo Catherine's question, too.

  3. I agree that central concepts in fiction might not be as easily discerned, and some fiction is more difficult than others to penetrate. For instance, in Aesop's fables it's pretty easy, because it says, "The moral of the story is..." It's arguably more helpful to refer to the themes common to stories read by an age group; themes such as friendship and family abound in primary grades, while themes like dystopian societies and conflicts of race and class are more common in high school. Once the theme is identified by the teacher, the associated vocabulary should become more apparent.

  4. Regarding structural analysis, I agree that cognate-facilitation is definitely a form of structural analysis! This can be incredibly effective, but is dependent on the learner's background knowledge in the primary language.

  5. Excellent point, Nancy. The degree to which the students are literate and knowledgeable in the first language should influence how well they make use of cognate clues. Also, it is generally considered easier to recognize a cognate when one sees it in writing, rather than simply by hearing it.


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