Word Learning is a Journey

“When will I know enough words?” asked Jairo, a student from Indonesia. “I want to be ready for college. So when can I stop learning new words?”  We had to tell him the truth: never. Word learning is not a constrained skill like letter knowledge, phonics, phonemic awareness, or fluency (Paris, 2005). Instead, it is akin to comprehension, an unconstrained skill that continues to develop across our lifespan. We all continue to learn words. Nancy recently learned that lunch-blocking occurs when someone schedules something to prevent another from having lunch with friends. One of our high school students recently used the term foofy, fluffed up and puffy, to describe the shoulders of a shirt she was wearing.

 Word learning is a journey, not a destination. And teachers have a powerful role to play in students’ journey. As highlighted in the case  “Bringing Academic Vocabulary into Everyday Practice,”  it’s important for teachers to select words worthy of instruction. We have suggested that teachers think about words worthy of being taught in response to specific questions (Fisher & Frey, 2008).

For example, words might be worthy of being taught if the answer to these questions is yes:

  • Is the word representative of a family of words that students should know?
  • Is the concept represented by the word critical to understanding the text?
  • Is the word a label for an idea that students need to know?
  • Does the word represent an idea that is essential for understanding another concept?
  • Will the word be used again in this text?  If so, does the word occur often enough to be redundant?
  • Will the word be used again during the school year?
  • Will the word be used in group discussions?
  • Will the word be used in writing tasks?
  • Will the word be used in other content or subject areas?

 Words are probably not worthy of being directly taught if the answer to these questions is yes:

  • Can students use context clues to determine the correct or intended meaning of the word without instruction?
  • Can students use structural analysis to determine the correct or intended meaning of the word without instruction?
  • Have I identified too many words for students to successfully integrate?

In other words, knowing which words are general, specialized, or technical is important but may not be enough to allow teachers to systematically plan vocabulary instruction.

On a sidenote,  word categories have been renamed in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). General academic words are those that have many meanings— meanings that change in different contexts and content areas. Domain-specific words are those that have a specific meaning and are typically used in a specific content area.

 In addition to targeting specific words for instruction, which the teachers in the community of practice at Rowland High School did, teachers might also want to model word-solving strategies such that students build habits for thinking about unknown words. As noted in the CCSS,  students should be able to “Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate” (p. 25). This requires that teachers model their own word-solving strategies so that students can hear the thinking that readers do when they come to an unknown word. This is an important habit that needs to be built if students are going to be prepared for college classes and careers, because they will likely encounter a number of words that they need to figure out on their own.

One profound message from the experience in Rowland related to word learning: the journey is not just about students. The teachers in this school also engaged in their own journey, interacting with one another, to deepen their understanding. In this way, they participated in the type of learning that we hope students receive: social experiences that build knowledge. And we bet those teachers have expanded vocabularies as a result of their interactions.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). English language arts standards. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Word wise and content rich: Five essential steps to teaching academic vocabulary. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Paris, S. G. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 184-202.


Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are both classroom teachers and faculty members at San Diego State University and Health Sciences High & Middle College. Longtime collaborators, they are authors of numerous articles and books, including (with Carol Rothenberg) Language Learners in the English Classroom (NCTE), and they co-edit, with Diane Lapp, the NCTE middle-level journal Voices from the Middle.