Using read-alouds as a
foundation for robust vocabulary

                        Emina McLean
Watch or read

                               GROUND TODAY
Why have a specific focus on vocabulary?

“A large and rich vocabulary is the hallmark of an
educated individual. Indeed, a large vocabulary
repertoire facilitates becoming an educated person to
the extent that vocabulary knowledge is strongly related
to reading proficiency in particular and school
achievement in general.” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan,
2013, p. 1)
What we know about the importance of
vocabulary knowledge (Graves, 2009)

• It is closely related to reading comprehension (RC) across the
  grades and a predictor in the early years of RC in later years.*
• Vocabulary instruction improves RC for English speakers and
  dual- or multi-language learners. Additionally, learning English
  vocabulary is one of the most important tasks for English
  language learners at school.
• There are profound differences between the vocabularies of more
  advantaged and less advantaged students when they commence
  school and those gaps remain or widen during the school years if
  we do nothing about it. **
The goal of vocabulary instruction is to increase (in breadth and
depth) the number of words, feelings and ideas students can:

         understand and demonstrate when talking and listening

         understand, analyse and interpret when reading

         use, describe and evoke when writing
What is common practice? (Kindle, 2009)

• Three levels of instruction (incidental, embedded or focused)
• Incidental involved the teacher infusing a Tier 2 word into the
  discussion before, during or after the read-aloud with no
  direct teaching.
• Embedded involved attention to word meaning with fewer
  than 4 teacher-student exchanges.
• Focussed involved the teacher leading a discussion about
  word meaning but teacher-student exchanges varied in
  length (4-25).
What is common practice? (Kindle, 2009)

• 9 instructional strategies were observed.
• Questioning; providing a definition, providing a synonym;
  providing an example; clarifying or correcting a students’
  response; extending a student generated definition;
  labelling; imagery; morphemic analysis

“Read-alouds are instructional events and require the
same advanced planning as any other lesson.” (Kindle,
2009, p.209)
A good question to ask

Through my vocabulary instruction, am I
facilitating comprehension in this moment only, or
word learning for comprehension now and later?
Incidental and direct approaches

There is a place for both (e.g. National Reading Panel, 2005) but:

• A single contact with a word will rarely lead a student to understand and
  retain a word’s meaning (Nagy et al, 1987; Beck et al, 2013). Students
  need multiple exposures in multiple contexts in order to develop rich
  word knowledge.
• Incidental → fast mapping (contextually appropriate but superficial
  knowledge; able to comprehend it now in context but probably not later)
• Direct → fast then slow/extended mapping (deep knowledge; able to
  comprehend it now and later)

Note, lower progress readers derive even less benefit from incidental
approaches (e.g. Biemiller, 2001)
What is robust vocabulary instruction?

“A robust approach to vocabulary involves directly explaining the
meanings of words along with thought-provoking, playful, and interactive
follow-up.” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2013, p.3)

• Select words and plan lessons ahead of time.
• Make meanings explicit and clear using student friendly explanations.
• Get students actively involved in thinking about and using the meanings
  in a variety of ways immediately.
• Review and expand upon what has been taught a number of times in
  speaking, reading and writing tasks.

Robust vocabulary instruction is effective for learning the meanings of
words AND for improving reading comprehension.
Why Tier 2 words?
The opportunity to learn Tier 2 words comes mainly from reading books. Students
won’t just pick them up in everyday spoken language because we don’t use them
very much.*

Without Tier 2 words students can’t move from using everyday spoken language to
becoming a literate language user. A barrier exists between everyday spoken and
written (academic/book) language. Academic success is possible when students
cross this so called ‘lexical bar’ (Corson, 1985;1995).

Written meaning/context and the sophisticated vocabulary of written language is
far harder to decipher than oral meaning/context due to:
• the absence of verbal and nonverbal cues we use when speaking
• the words are more abstract/less concrete/less imageable

Students are therefore less likely to learn word meanings well just through reading
Why Tier 2 words?

Tier 2 words are frequent in text. The most frequent 2000 words make
up about 80% of what we read which leaves about 20% of words that
are predominantly Tier 2 words (Nation, 2001; Beck, McKeown &
Kucan, 2008).

Knowledge of Tier 2 words is essential to reading comprehension and
Should I explicitly teach Tier 1 words?

No, Tier 1 words need virtually no attention (in RtI Tier 1) as the
majority of students learn them independently.*

Even though some students start school with smaller vocabularies
than their peers for a variety of reasons, students who are behind will
quickly build their Tier 1 vocabularies IF we provide linguistically rich

What will be of most use, given instructional time is precious, is to
teach these students Tier 2 words along with their peers (the words
less likely to be learned independently).
Why use read-alouds?

We are (or should be) doing them anyway. We are
capitalising on the opportunity.

When done well, read-alouds improve vocabulary,
comprehension, and narrative skills (Beck & McKeown,
2001; Santoro et al, 2008).
The steps

•   Step 1 – choose the read-aloud or text
•   Step 2 – choose the words to teach
•   Step 3 – develop student-friendly explanations and plan the lesson
•   Step 4 – deliver the lesson
• Step 5 – retrieval practice
• Step 6 – assessment/monitoring
Step 1: Choosing read-alouds or texts

Early years
• Not books they can read themselves
• Rich literature and concepts
• High interest for children
• A link to the curriculum
• Exposure to different cultures, ethnicities, settings, people, abilities and geographical locations
• Text coherence (expository structure is clear)
• Exposure to some words they would not come across in everyday spoken language
• Exposure to language and ideas that takes them beyond the here and now/what’s known
• A balance of text and illustration (engaging and rich text that conveys the story meaning with illustrations
  that confirm/reinforce text comprehension)
• Informational and narrative texts

Mid to late primary and secondary school
• Exposure to a range of themes and ideas
• Exposure to things you want them to know or think about
• The full range of text types
Step 2: Choosing Tier 2 words

Choose words:
• with academic and social utility* or words that have mileage (they need to be useful)
• that are not too easy, not too hard, just right (Goldilocks words as per Parsons &
  Branagan, 2017)
• they likely won’t come across in everyday spoken language
• that are more abstract (not concrete) with low(er) imageability
• that are more complex and difficult to learn through incidental exposure

How many words? Beck et al (2013) suggest ~2-3 per book* or ~10 words per week.

If books in the early years don’t offer up good Tier 2 candidates, use the ideas
expressed in the book or Tier 1 words to generate Tier 2 words to teach (Beck et al,
Step 3: Student friendly explanations

Prepare explanations for students following these key steps:

1.   Look up the word in a few different dictionaries online. Hold in mind that
     dictionary definitions are pretty useless as a way to learn new words.
2.   Consider the definitions from the learner’s point of view, based on their
     age/stage. We are trying to explain the word’s meaning rather than giving
     them the definition. There is a difference.
3.   Consider how you would characterise/frame the word so the meaning is
4.   Consider everyday language that you can use to create the explanation.
5.   Create the student friendly explanation ensuring the meaning is clear and
     explicit. Scripts can be very useful here.
Step 4: The lesson

• Read the text.
• Use initial questions (open questions that invite description or explanation about
  story ideas) and follow up questions (questions designed to scaffold students’
  thinking and foster development and elaboration of ideas) throughout.
• Students are active participants in teacher-led purposeful discussions about the
  story ideas afterward.
• 1. Introduce the words and student friendly explanations.
• 2. Solidify meaning straight away.
• 3. Take the words beyond the story.
• 4. Questions, reasons and examples
• 5. Get them to make choices about the words.
• 6. Get them to use all of the words.
Step 4.1: Introduce word meanings

• There is no need to introduce the word beforehand if you are
  reading aloud together. * (i.e. no pre-teaching)
• As an alternative to pre-teaching words that are disruptive to RC,
  you can provide a student-friendly explanation in the moment that
  the word is encountered when reading and move on.
• Once the book has been read and purposeful text discussion has
  concluded, introduce each word and their student friendly
Step 4.2: Solidify meaning
Word associations
Once you have provided student friendly explanations, get students to associate the new words with words
or phrases you present. Get them to explain their reasoning.

Describe a time when you…
Get students to associate the word with a range of contexts from their own experience so they can see it
being of personal use.

Get students to clap (taking turns) how much or how little they would like to be described by the target word
and then they need to justify their response.

Which would you rather? When/how/why might you?
Ask a range of questions about the target words.

This section requires some preparation as well e.g. synonyms, phrases, questions.

                                                                                             (Beck et al, 2013)
Step 4.3: Take the words beyond the story

Provide extended examples of the word meanings in a range of contexts.

For example, if I had taught the word meaning for ‘dazzling’ and the context was that
in the story, Nathaniel had dazzling teeth, I would want to make sure I gave other
examples that weren’t about teeth or necessarily about vivid colours.

Performance of an athlete or debating team member (non-literal)
Art on display

                                                                        (Beck et al, 2013)
Step 4.4: Questions, reasons and examples

“I am going to ask you some questions about the words we have learned. I want you to use
reasons or examples in your responses.”

For example:

Which of these three things is impressive? Tell me why or why not. [list three things]

What is something you could do to encourage your peer? Why? What are some of the reasons
why we might encourage our peers?

If you are holding a baby, you need to do it carefully. Why? What are some other things that you
need to do carefully?

                                                                             (Beck et al, 2013)
Step 4.5: Making choices

“I’m going to say some things. I want you to tell me if they are examples of the word we are
focusing on or not. If they are examples of the word, I want you to say that word. If they are not
examples, you don’t need to say anything.”

The word is jubilant. Say jubilant if any of the things I say would mean someone was jubilant.

Sitting on a chair
Winning the netball match
Washing the dishes
Becoming school captain
Winning Tattslotto

                                                                                (Beck et al, 2013)
Step 4.6: Using all the words

“We have learned three words today. Those words were ___ , ___ and ___. I
want us to think about them some more now before we finish the lesson.”

• Relating words (ask students to share ways in which the words are/could be
  related using full sentences)
• Sentences (ask a question using more than one of the target words in the

“Would you prefer to disturb a sleeping dog or ferocious wolf? Why?”

                                                               (Beck et al, 2013)
Step 4.6: Using all the words

• Choices (ask a question using an example and get students to choose between two target
  words in their answer)

“If you pack your bag the night before school, would that be sensible or complicated ?”

• Students create their own examples (ask a question to which they must respond with a
  detailed explanation)

“If I told you I was feeling radiant, what might have happened?”
“Why might someone be walking cautiously ?”

                                                                            (Beck et al, 2013)
Step 5: Retrieval practice

   GORDON (2020)          EFFECTIVE FOR ALL         OF PARTICULAR              “DESIRABLE
                             STUDENTS                BENEFIT TO                DIFFICULTY”
                                                  STUDENTS WITH DLD

Review is essential to stimulating long-term learning/retention of vocabulary (Beck, Perfetti &
McKeown, 1982).

Review is often absent or insufficient (Beck & McKeown, 2005) which leads to students knowing
the word now but not later.
An example teach and review model

            Monday             Tuesday          Wednesday           Thursday            Friday

         Teach 3 new words   Practice/review   Teach 3 new words   Practice/review     Review all
Week 1                          Monday                              Wednesday
                                                                                     Review Week 3*

         Teach 3 new words   Practice/review   Teach 3 new words   Practice/review     Review all
                                Monday                              Wednesday
Week 2                                                                               Review Week 1

         Teach 3 new words   Practice/review   Teach 3 new words   Practice/review     Review all
                                Monday                              Wednesday
Week 3                                                                               Review Week 2
Considerations for older students

• More of a focus on reading and writing than in the early years
• Different texts and longer texts
• Tier 3 words for informational text comprehension and use
• Texts are not read in a day so choose a number of words per day or per
• If you are reading the book across the week, or across the fortnight, or
  across a month, create a teaching cycle around that.
• Create a word wall each week so students can refer to the words
  throughout the week.
• Get students to record word meanings as they are taught (e.g.
  vocabulary workbook).
A teach and review model for older students

     Monday           Tuesday             Wednesday             Thursday              Friday
Read text (e.g.   Follow up            Follow up            Follow up            Assess word
Chapter 1-2)      activities (e.g.     activities (e.g.     activities (e.g.     knowledge
                  making choices,      making choices,      making choices,
Introduce words   word associations,   word associations,   word associations,
                  questions, reasons   questions, reasons   questions, reasons   *Revise words
Explain story     & examples           & examples           & examples           taught in the
context           etcetera)            etcetera)            etcetera)            previous week

Provide student   Writing sentences    Writing sentences    Writing sentences
explanations                           Students record
                                       word meaning in
Create the word                        their own
wall                                   vocabulary
                                                   (Adapted from the 5 day cycle: Beck at al, 2013)
Step 6: Assessment and monitoring
• Benchmarking/criterion referenced/norm
  referenced/standardised assessments have their limitations.
• McKeown et al (1985) compared definitional and robust approach
  to instruction, and found that on MCQ high numbers of encounters
  with words impacted results but the type of instruction did not.
  However, on comprehension tests, the type of instruction
  mattered, along with the number of encounters.
• Assessment design therefore matters. We need to make sure we
  are assessing our impact on future RC, not just shallow
  assessment of their word knowledge e.g. capacity to choose a
• How well we know words it not an all or nothing principle. The
  deeper the word-learning, the more likely it is to have an impact on
  RC. As above, our assessments/reviews need to reflect this.
Step 6: Assessment and monitoring
• Present similarly featured examples and non-examples of a word (students justify their
• Have students create examples of words taught (e.g. tell me about a time that you were
  astonished ; describe an event that could make someone feel perplexed; describe
  something that you find scrumptious and why it is scrumptious to you)
• Provide semantically similar word pairs (e.g. exotic and unique) and have students explain
  what is similar and what is different about the two.
• Contextual interpretation questions:

e.g. When Nathaniel and I arrived at Emina’s door, I had to encourage Nathaniel to knock on
the door. How do you think Nathaniel felt about seeing Emina? Why?
e.g. Nathaniel told me he was a novice, but when I saw him teaching vocabulary I knew he had
been kidding. What do you think Nathaniel’s vocabulary instruction was like? Why?

• Sentence completion tasks (written).
• MCQ and true/false traditional formats can be okay but give them some thought.*
                                                                           (Beck et al, 2013)
Who may need additional instruction?
About 90% of students are able to acquire new vocabulary at the rate required to
remain at grade level with the right instruction (e.g. Biemiller, 2001).

There are two groups of students who may struggle with word learning, and in turn,
listening/talking and reading/writing:

• students from linguistically disadvantaged backgrounds
• students who are dual- or multi-language learners
• students who miss a lot of school
• students with sensory impairments

• students with Language Disorder associated with another diagnosis
• students with Developmental Language Disorder
Developmental Language Disorder

• These students usually need to hear words twice as often before
  comprehending and then using the word independently (Paul, Norbury & Gosse,
• They need additional, repeated, enriched, opportunities for practice in order to
  understand word meanings and their referents (Paul, Norbury & Gosse, 2018).
• It is helpful to highlight semantic AND phonological features of words (Paul,
  Norbury & Gosse, 2018).
• “…word‐learning difficulties experienced by children with SLI may originate at
  the fast mapping stage, and that phonological STM and receptive vocabulary
  significantly predict fast mapping ability” (Jackson et al, 2015, p.61).
• “…children with DLD demonstrate an impaired capacity to encode
  phonological information…which impacts fast mapping” (Jackson et al, 2019,
Students with RC difficulties benefit even
more from vocabulary instruction

“…vocabulary training does increase comprehension for
all students. In addition, students identified as having
reading problems made more than three times the gains
than students with no indicated reading problem. This
pattern, however, was not the same with the vocabulary
outcomes. Students with reading difficulties made
equivalent gains in vocabulary knowledge as those
without.” (Elleman et al, 2009, p.34).
In closing
Read-alouds must be carefully planned if they are to affect vocabulary development and
reading comprehension (Santoro et al, 2008).

“A substantially greater teacher-centred effort is needed to promote vocabulary development,
especially in the early years.” (Biemiller, 2001, p.26)

Ensure “systematic exposure to two to three new words per day combined with adequate
explanation of these words and opportunities to use them.” (Graves, 2009, p.34)

“Engaging children in active analysis of word meanings is more effective at promoting their
learning of new words than instruction that merely has children relate words to the context of a
story and to personal experiences in a less analytical, more context-bound way.” (Silverman,
2007, p.107)

“Instruction that succeeded in affecting comprehension included three features: more than
several exposures to each word, both definitional and contextual information, and engagement
of students in active, or deep, processing.” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2008, p.4)

• Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford
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• Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2001). Text talk: Capturing the benefits of read-aloud experiences for young
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• Beck, I. L., Perfetti, C. A., & McKeown, M. G. (1982). Effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access
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• Biemiller, A. (2001). Teaching vocabulary: Early, direct, and sequential. American Educator, 25(1), 24-28.
• Biemiller, A. (2010). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill SRA.
• Corson, P. (1996). Using English words. Springer Science & Business Media.
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• Gordon, K. R. (2020). The advantages of retrieval-based and spaced practice: Implications for word learning in
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• Graves, M. F. (Ed.) (2009). Essential readings on vocabulary instruction. International Reading Association.
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•   Parsons, S., & Branagan, A. (2017). Word Aware: Teaching vocabulary across the day, across
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•   Parsons, S., & Branagan, A. (2017). Word Aware 2: Teaching Vocabulary in the Early Years .

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