reading comprehension and literacy development are key

A simple routine to support literacy development in all subjects

Vocabulary and background knowledge are critical to reading comprehension, and teachers can reinforce them through any subject matter

When you look at the five components of reading and how teachers’ emphasis on them changes as students learn to read, one constant is word learning. This shouldn’t be surprising for those familiar with Scarborough’s Reading Rope, which suggests that vocabulary and background knowledge are essential components of skilled reading. These two strands of the rope can account for a 50-60 percent variation in reading comprehension scores. Not only do students need to know how to decode words, but they must also know the meaning of words in order to apply their meaning toward comprehension.

Fortunately, students are building vocabulary and background knowledge all the time as they pick up new words from context through reading and listening, learn new words and ideas in their daily lives, and of course, in all the various content areas they study in school.

Explicit vocabulary instruction not only helps students build vocabulary in the moment, but also gives them the tools to learn new words as they encounter them. Here’s an effective routine to help students learn new words whether they’re in an English class or the science lab.

Four-Part Processor

To understand the rationale behind this routine, it helps to keep the four-part processing model of word recognition in mind. At its base are the phonological and orthographic processors that govern spoken and written language, respectively, and that inform and influence one another. From there, we move up to the meaning processor, where definitions of words and the meaning of the information coming in are processed. Finally, at the top, is the context processor, which layers in the information about text structure, speaker or author, environment, or any other contextual information that may affect the understanding of the sentence and passage.

Teachers want to make sure they’re giving students information that informs each of those processors because they are all important in knowing and understanding a word, but this model also points out all the places where comprehension of a word can go wrong for a student.

Four-Step Vocabulary Instruction

This routine was originally designed by Dr. Anita Archer, but before I launch into the four steps, I like to ask my students to tell me how familiar they are with the word using the Dale Scale:

  1. I have never seen this word before;
  2. I have seen this word, but I don’t know what it means;
  3. I have a basic understanding of this word; and
  4. I understand this word so well that I can teach it to others.

From there, I:

  1. Introduce the pronunciation of the word;
  2. Provide a student-friendly definition of the word;
  3. Offer examples of the word in use; and
  4. Ask questions to check on understanding.

Think about that four-part processor and how each of these steps relates to it. In the first step, I pronounce the word and break it down into its individual phonemes. I may also have students write it out at this point. Together, these steps activate both the phonemic and orthographic processing centers. Next, I tell students the definition of the word, engaging the meaning processor. As I move on to step three and give several examples of its use, I am again engaging the meaning processor, but also adding context about how the word is used. Asking them questions ensures they understand and gives them a nudge to really take ownership of the new word.


I’ll run through an example using a word I learned on a Word of the Day calendar recently: “tohubohu.” In class, I would ask students to hold up their fingers, but here I’ll ask you to give yourself a 1-4 score based on the Dale Scale before we begin. Tohubohu is not a common word, so I would expect to see mostly 1s in class. I was certainly at a 1 when I saw it the other day.

Next, I would begin step one and analyze the word with my students, first by asking them how many syllables it has, which is four. Next, we would look at the phonemes, to hu bo hu, and we might note that one of them repeats. Next, we look at it orthographically, perhaps pointing out that it’s pretty similar to its phonetic structure. We’re still on the first step and we’ve already pronounced it and written it. I would generally ask my students to write it a few more times here, as well.

Now, for step two, we’ll define the word, which means “chaos, confusion, and disorder.” It’s not an English word, but morphologically, it does have two morphemes, tohu and bohu, which mean confusion and emptiness, respectively. It’s kind of like a compound word. As I explain these things to students, I like to ask them to write the definition down, and also to draw a picture that represents the meaning of the word. Kids love to draw, so it’s an easy way to engage them, but it also helps really lodge the word into their minds so they can take ownership of it.

Next, in step three, I’ll give examples of the word being used in a sentence. “I have a friend who can take puzzles from tohubohu to order much faster than me.” “I feel much more at peace when my room is not tohubohu, so I pick it up every day.” Or I might show a picture of students reading peacefully in class next to another where the class is in chaos after a large project and talk about the differences in tohubohu between them.

Finally, in step four, I’ll check understanding with some questions. Maybe I’ll use the same pictures of the class and ask which is tohubohu. “Is your desk tohubohu?” “Was your first day of school peaceful or was it tohubohu?” This is also a great place to ask students to provide their own examples of the word in a sentence.

Finally, I’ll return to the Dale Scale and ask them to give me a 1-4 self-assessment on their knowledge of the word.

The whole routine only takes a few minutes, and it can be easily applied to other content areas. In math, for example, instead of just teaching subtraction, teachers could begin by talking with students about the word “subtract”: how it is a verb that means “to take away from” and how “sub” means “under” and “tract,” like tractor, means “to drag or pull.” At the end, when you’re asking questions to assess their knowledge of the word, you might even be able to sneak a word problem past them by asking something like, “I had a dozen eggs, but I subtracted two. How many are left?”

Helping students increase their vocabulary will do wonders for their reading comprehension. It improves not just their understanding of content areas, but their ability to learn more in any area in the future.

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