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Teaching Vocabulary To Struggling Readers

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Teaching Vocabulary to struggling readers can be a challenge. Often times special education teachers aren’t sure how to integrate vocabulary instruction into their teaching routine and getting our students to integrate new words into their vocabulary can be a challenge. However, reading comprehension depends on students having a good vocabulary. 

One day when I was about eight years old my aunt asked me if my grandfather was in the living room. I looked and went to inform her that the living room was “unoccupied.” 

She came to a full stop, turned to look at me, and asked where I learned that word. The answer was Harry Potter. 

Reading has always been how I encounter new vocabulary words and learn new definitions. Most of my advanced vocabulary in elementary school came from Harry Potter and The Secret Garden. 

Putting the problematic elements of both those books aside, the educational value they gave me translated to other books and made me a better reader. 

However, I have a particular skill set when it comes to language. I love to read and write and do both for fun. Nowadays I work with students who struggle with receptive and expressive language as well as reading comprehension.

These students need dedicated instruction in vocabulary if they are to become better readers, speakers, and writers.

That is why in this blog post we are going to cover why vocabulary matters, and strategies to integrate more interventions into your teaching practice! 

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There are many different ways to define vocabulary. A lot of people call it a dictionary in your brain.

However, in teaching, there is a difference between words you know the definition of and words in your vocabulary.

If a word is in a student’s vocabulary, it means they know how to use it correctly when speaking and writing. 

That word is not considered fully integrated if you recognize it when listening or speaking, but do not know how to use it expressively. 

There are three stages to integrating a vocabulary word.

  1. Knowing the definition 
  2. Recognizing the word when listening or reading
  3. Utilizing the word in spoken language and writing

Vocabulary is a thread in the Scarborough Reading Rope.

This means that if students encounter a large number of words they do not understand, it will impact their comprehension of the text. 

The bottom line is struggling to understand vocabulary impacts reading comprehension.

If you’ve been to a PD seminar or a college course recently you’ve probably heard about the tiers of vocabulary. 

These tiers are commonly referenced in special education and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). 

Before moving forward let’s establish what they are. 

  • Tier One – Sight words (blue, yellow, and, me, and so on)
  • Tier Two – Common words found across multiple subject areas (measure, complex, informed)
  •  Tier Three – Content-specific words only found in one subject (stalagmite, stalactite, echolocation)  

The style of explicit instruction you use for teaching vocabulary to struggling readers will depend on your end goals. 

In my experience, children who need interventions in vocabulary have problems with receptive and expressive language. Students with these disabilities often need interventions in everyday words and not just content-specific words.

Typically the recommendation is if you are working with students who are learning English or need improved language skills you should focus on tier 2 vocabulary words.

These words have multiple meanings, are found across multiple subjects, and give you the biggest bang for your buck as it were. 

However, if you are focusing on reading comprehension and want your student to be able to learn context or concepts from reading in a subject like science or social studies, then you will need to pre-teach any tier 3 vocabulary words.

A great strategy when teaching vocabulary to struggling readers is to use a word map.

This will break down the word, its category, and meaning and ask students to come up with their own sentences for the word.

There is a free word map available to download on my resource library. Click here to join my email list and get access to this plus tons of other useful resources!

People do not often consider the challenges vocabulary can present in reading comprehension. That is why is it vital that teaching vocabulary to struggling readers is a common practice and priority for special education teachers. 

Remember when you want to improve language skills in general focus on tier 2 words, but for reading comprehension of specific texts, you will need to preteach tier 3 words. Always encourage students to engage with their new vocabulary. 

Make sure to join my email list to get access to the free resource library! This includes my downloadable word map, to help with vocabulary instruction! 

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