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Teaching Networks of Words

Posted by Elfrieda H. Hiebert on 13 August 2020

A key aspect of English language arts instruction is helping young children to develop their vocabulary. But which of the almost 600,000 words in written English should teachers teach?

The most typical answer to this question in reading programs has been to teach students lists of words—usually lists of 6 to 8 words per week.  A teacher might pick a set of words from a story such as ruined, feast, cardboard, fierce, flights, pitcher, treasure, and stoops.

But when students are taught unrelated words in lists, they neither remember the words after the week of instruction nor are they able to comprehend future stories with the same words. Why?

The list of unrelated words is like a filing cabinet, where each item is in isolation from the other. But the brain’s neurons don’t fire in isolation from one another, rather they form a network. Children don’t retain words because teaching them in isolation from one another contradicts how the brain integrates knowledge.  

Students need to be taught networks of words that are connected by key ideas—networks that build the background knowledge that anchors comprehension. This will help them to better comprehend the stories they’re reading right now and also the stories they read in the future.

Instead of a list of isolated words, focus on a network of words all related to what a character in a story1 may encounter, such as places or settings:  studio, avenue, skyscrapers, subway platform, bleachers, ferry, station, statue, fire escapes, and stoops.

At TextProject, we believe that words matter. They’re the way we express ideas and are central to students’ learning. We have several free, downloadable resources to aid in teaching networks of words. In fact, we’ve just launched a resource that provides the networks within the 2,500 word families that account for 90% or more of the words in the texts students read. The Core Vocabulary Project is the resource that gives students the vocabulary foundation that they need to be successful in school and life.

1Story used for examples is C. Hatfield (2002).  Me and Uncle Romie.  New York:  Dial Books.