A Vocabulary Journey…

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for. ~ Ludwig Wiltgenstein

I learned of The Two-Week Vocabulary Blogging Challenge at Blog 4 Edu. The challenge is what prompted the idea for this post.

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Four years ago I had the opportunity to start on a vocabulary journey with the staff and students at Irving  Elementary School. I’m pleased to say that the vocabulary approach is still soaring and is stronger than ever!

This school-wide approach has a strong foundation complete with ongoing professional development based on the needs of the students,  formative and summative assessments, collaboration among staff and providing the necessary resources to implement the approach. The results of the intentional vocabulary approach has not only increased students’ vocabulary but it has also helped in the areas of reading comprehension and writing.

Irving’s total population is over 700 students. 90% of these students receive free or reduced lunch. Over 60% of them are learning English as a Second Language. Irving Elementary is the home of one of four Two-Way Dual Language Immersion programs in the state of Iowa.  Currently students in two sections of grades K-4 receive instruction both in English and Spanish each day. The program will expand to 5th grade next year. School-wide data supported that vocabulary acquisition was an area that needed ongoing attention.

A few years before the journey actually started, the principal, Dr. McGrath (rchmcgrth), members of the staff and I were fortunate to receive training, through the Iowa Department of Education, from Dr. Isabel Beck, author of Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. This training eventually led to introducing the staff to identifying Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 words, writing student friendly definitions and incorporating engaging vocabulary activities that could support and strengthen the development and acquisition of Tier 2 words. We also knew the power in modeling the strategies for teachers in their own classrooms. Leadership team members, the principal and myself could be found trying out the strategy with students – not as experts, but as a part of the learning community.

Teachers were soon developing their own lessons including Tier 2 vocabulary, student friendly definitions and a variety of vocabulary activities. The students became increasing interested in adding this rich vocabulary to their repertoires.

From: http://bit.ly/eepvXR

During this time a few kindergarten teachers were introduced to Scholastic’s Text Talk Kits at a conference. They saw the ties to the approach being studied by the full staff and invested in a kit to try it out. The lessons made sense to them since they already had some background in the vocabulary approach built around high quality children’s literature.

Knowing that teachers continue to be increasingly busy, the leadership team decided to look into what it would take to purchase kits for other classrooms. Grants were written and received and the school wide approach started to take shape. The Scholastic Text Talk kits were purchased for grades K, 1, and 2.

An internet search for a similar set of materials that could be used with grades 3, 4, and 5 led us to a gold mine! The Utah Reading First Educators and the Utah State Office of Education collaborated to develop a set of 101 Text Talk Lessons once again built around high quality children’s literature. These lessons were divided up among the 3rd – 5th grade teachers resulting in about 20 to 25 lessons for each grade level.  These lessons included ideas for three  Tier 2 words per book. We were encouraged to add three additional words, student friendly definitions, and vocabulary activities for each lesson.  The books were purchased for each teacher and the school-wide approach was ready to soar!

Both the Scholastic Text Talk Kits and the lessons created by the teachers in Utah focus on maximizing the effectiveness of reading aloud to students just as is pointed out in this article by Holly Lane & Tyran Wright.

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As the teachers began to use the materials, they realized that picture supports would be beneficial. Teachers at each grade level collaborated together to find pictures or clip art that went with each word being introduced. They also continued to develop other ways for students to share their understanding of each word. It is not uncommon to see students acting out these words, drawing simple pictures to depict their understanding of the  meanings, providing examples of their use at both home and school and using the words within their own writing. As an instructional coach at the school I love embedding the words in lessons modeled or conversation with students. Their reactions to the words being used is priceless! They take a lot of pride in their sophisticated word knowledge!

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Unfortunately we were unable to find Text Talk type lessons built around books written in Spanish for the Two-Way Dual Language Immersion program. But, that didn’t stop anyone! The teachers who teach in Spanish all day met throughout the past two summers as well as during the school year to develop their own Text Talk lessons in Spanish! They recently were able to showcase their work as presenters at the Iowa Culture and Language Conference. Not only did they share their journey, but they shared it by presenting the entire session in Spanish!

As an aspiring elementary principal I value being a part of this vocabulary journey. It has taught me the power of a focused school-wide approach based on meeting the needs of students. If the Text Talk materials were used at the individual teacher level, pockets of students would have benefited. The school-wide approach created a seamless structure and a common approach focused on the needs of all of the students. The amount of quality collaboration throughout this process was truly amazing. One could feel the sense of empowerment each step of the way. I know I will carry all aspects learned on this vocabulary journey to an elementary school someday. The exact curricular approach is unknown as the needs of the particular students will guide decisions. But the professional development process that inspires and empowers the staff will be at the heart of the learning community!

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

Lane, H. B., & Wright, T. L. (2007). Maximizing the effectiveness of reading aloud. The Reading Teacher, 60, 668-675.

Lehr, F., Osborn, J. (with Hiebert, E.H.). (2004). A focus on vocabulary. Honolulu, HI: Pacific Resources for Education and Learning.

Text Talk Lessons created by Utah Reading First Educators (Group) and the Utah State Office of Education. Copyright © 2009 by State of Utah. All rights reserved. All materials in this publication are in the public domain and may be reproduced, reprinted, or redistributed.

This evening @gossteach posted a link to this Edutopia article on Twitter. (Doing it Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary) It ties nicely with the above post and provides additional resources! 


  • Aviva (@grade1) 19 Dec

    Thanks for sharing your journey here! It sounds like a very interesting one. I also think that there is a lot of value in a school wide approach. You show that to be true here.

    Great post!

    • Kathy Perret 19 Dec

      Thanks, once again, for your nice comments! I love the support you lend to fellow bloggers!

      I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with a several school-wide approaches. They have been powerful. The key is a collaborative, team approach. I’ve gained so much from the guidance of the administrators I’ve work with.


  • JoAnnJ68 19 Dec

    Thanks for sharing! What a terrific endeavor by a committed staff to give kids the tools that they need. The school wide approach helps to keep everyone in touch and makes things easier.
    Good luck and keep writing.

    • Kathy Perret 19 Dec

      Thanks for your comments, JoAnn. I agree – school-wide approaches bring a sense of collective efficacy to the school. It was so inspirational to watch this staff take hold of this approach. They are to be commended for their outstanding efforts! The students benefit from their ongoing support and guidance!


  • Robin Phares 19 Dec

    Wow! Your school is so fortunate to have a leader like you. Your vocabulary journey sounds intriguing. I believe your success can be attributed to your commitment to the professional development aspect. When you do a school-wide project like this it is so important to have a 100% buy in from your staff.
    I am afraid professional development is what Ohio educators are missing. It seems that we are so afraid of not balancing the budget and we are cutting everything. I understand that balancing the budget is important, however, there are free or very low cost professional development opportunities we are missing.
    For example, just reading this blog has inspired me to pay a little more attention to how I approach vocabulary in my own classroom.
    Thanks Kathy!

    • Kathy Perret 19 Dec

      Thank you for your nice comments. I’m glad my post has inspired you. We are fortunate in Iowa to have a focus on professional learning. Schools are to use a well researched model call the Iowa Professional Development Model. Sometime the full staff buy-in doesn’t come right away. Many times with new approaches teachers need to see the benefits to their students before they fully buy-in to the approach. The school seemed to reach that quicker with this vocabulary journey. The approach was supported not only with ongoing professional development but the necessary resources to implement the approach well.

      Best wishes with your own vocabulary journey!


  • Rich McGrath 19 Dec

    Kathy, what a wonderful post. Thank you for mentioning our school. I am so fortunate to work with you and your expertise. We make a great team!

    • Kathy Perret 19 Dec

      Thanks! I’m so glad you liked it. I learn so much from you, your staff and your kids. Thanks for the opportunity to join you in this and many other journeys! We do make a great team! 🙂

  • Emma Herrod 22 Jan

    I hang my head in shame Kathy that it’s taken me until now to acknowledge your wonderful post.

    I have actually read this three times – it’s such an encouraging story and I’m so happy to see your staff’s hard work paying off in tangible success stories.

    I had not ever come across the Text Talk lessons before.

    I echo what Robin says above about the buy-in of your colleagues but it seems that you have really nailed this. With this mutual support, great things will happening (and are already).

    Thank you so much for sharing. I have added this as a link on my blog post so that others can read the story of Language and Vocabulary at Irving Elementary School.

    Please keep me posted on how thing continue to develop. I would be really interested!

    Best wishes to you and your staff and students.


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