Posted in Reading Intervention

Do These Socks Match?


When text complexity overwhelms learners, embrace long-term goals.

Do you have a struggling learner in your class? Being a competent learner involves many skills. One very important skill is comprehension – reading comprehension. In the simplest terms, reading comprehension refers to understanding the text. But, what if the ability of the learner does not match the complexity of the text?

There are several components to successful reading and one of special importance is vocabulary knowledge, or knowing what words mean. Research has shown that direct vocabulary instruction improves a learner’s overall academic performance.

Unfortunately, many instructors do not take the time to address this need.

Some instructors rely on indirect methods for vocabulary growth in which vocabulary is acquired through wide reading. This is true and important. But let’s take a closer look at vocabulary and the idea that indirect learning is enough for ALL learners.

In general, one gleans word meanings through reading practice when it is at the learner’s reading ability level. But what happens when the text is too difficult for the learner to ingest? What if there are just too many words with which the learner is not familiar?

Hello stress! Hello shut down! Hello despair!

Some common strategies to address this lack of match between the learner and the text are:

  • provide a simplified text.
  • include pictures.
  • read the text out loud and explain it to the learner (guided reading).
  • provide an audio tape of the text.
  • offer a screen-reader to read the text to the student.

This are all great ideas – to get through the moment. But they do not address the long-range goal of improved academic performance across all subjects. They are essentially Band-Aids for symptoms, but not strategies for growth. There is nothing wrong with using these accessibility supports; in fact, each is very useful. But, improved reading comprehension ability takes more than Band-Aides.

In order to advance an ELL student or a challenged learner, there needs to be a consistent, systematic delivery of vocabulary instruction to guarantee vocabulary acquisition and growth.

So, let’s change it up and tailor instruction to address the learner’s needs. What the learner needs is improved vocabulary and some vocabulary needs to be explicitly taught, especially Tier Two words.

Beck, McKeown, and Kucan categorize vocabulary in terms of three tiers:

 Tier Two vocabulary is also referred to as academic vocabulary as it appears in frequency across the curriculum of varied subjects. Tier Two words are needed for academic success.

Can you find the Tier Two words in the following list?

  • Entrenched
  • Osmosis
  • Occurrence
  • Endangering
  • Help
  • Reincarnation
  • Want
  • Mitochondria
  • Under

(Answers: entrenched, occurrence, endangering)

So what is an instructor to do?

First and foremost, have a plan to address vocabulary needs. Preview your lesson plans and look for words that might be situational or contextually defined. Multiple meanings words throw off second language learners and struggling readers. Look for words that will help learners with performance on tests and assignments.

To identify Tier Two academic words. Ask yourself:

  • Is this word part of written language, but not necessarily common, oral language?
  • Are there multiple meanings for this word?
  • Is this word used frequently across different subjects?
  • Will knowledge of this word lead to academic success?
  • Does this word impact comprehension?
  • Is this word a more succinct form of a generalized word or phrase?

Once you have identified target vocabulary from the lesson, reorganize the lesson with vocabulary growth as a learning objective. Be mindful of connecting the dots for all the learners. Create multiple opportunities for learners to engage with these troublesome words whole class, in small groups, and individually after explicit instruction (see future blogs for ideas for exciting vocabulary lessons).

Let’s try this again. Can you find the Tier Two word in this list?

  • Stalagmite
  • Sinister
  • Sentence

(Answer: sinister. Sinister is a more succinct form of the word evil and reflects a more complex vocabulary knowledge. Stalagmite is a Tier Three word. Sentence is a Tier One word.)

Reflect on these tiers and ask yourself about the text, do these words match the learner’s ability? If not, provide the instruction that will move the learner to long academic success with careful lesson planning not just Band-Aids.

Happy designing!

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