by | December 27, 2010

    Vocabulary is a fundamental component of comprehending text. It is also basic to knowledge acquisition in any topic. Without a rich vocabulary, individuals are limited in their participation in the workplace and their communities.

    Teachers agree that vocabulary is critical but, in an already overcrowded school curriculum, fitting in even more vocabulary instruction can be a challenge. Teachers, however, do not have to feel pressured or disheartened because there is a source for vocabulary learning that often is underused—the daily events of classroom life. Language is the tool that is employed throughout the day. Thousands of words are spoken each day during classes. As teachers, we control the language of the classroom. When teachers use and support rich vocabulary in the course of everyday events, students have opportunities to strengthen and expand their facility with words. While vocabulary lessons are also important, the richness of everyday talk in the classroom can go a long way to developing strong vocabularies among students.

    What Vocabulary Proficiencies Can Be Enhanced Through Exceptional Expressions for Everyday Events?

    The fundamental aim of Exceptional Expressions for Everyday Events or E4 is to support students in becoming curious about and aware of the richness of language. What makes language both useful and intriguing are the many relationships among words and the interconnections of words to ideas. Human experience is complex, and word choices can be critical in helping people better convey new concepts or subtle differences in meaning. A broader vocabulary naturally allows improved understanding of an increasingly complicated world.

    E4 is aimed at offering students “the gift of words,” to use the metaphor of Scott, Skobel, and Wells (2008). Following are some of the ways in which even quite ordinary words can be interrelated and complex, and which are highlighted in E4.

    Polysemy or multiple meanings

    Often, the most common words in a language have multiple meanings, a feature that is called polysemy (“many meanings”). A good example of this is the word set, which in the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary has 464 definitions. That is an unusually high number, but quite a few everyday words (e.g., find, change, good) have a surprising number of nuanced, or distinct, meanings.

    Multiple parts of speech

    When a word takes on a different meaning, it often becomes a different part of speech as well. For example, some definitions of the word set are verbs, as in set an example or set the vase down. In other situations, set is a noun, as in a set of dishes or a TV set.


    Words may be clustered in groups by their meanings. Consider the word good as an adjective that means pleasant or fine. A search in a thesaurus produces some of the members of the word cluster for good: acceptable, commendable, pleasing, gratifying, satisfactory, marvelous, splendid, wonderful. In E4, we use the term synonym to describe words that have similar meanings, not necessarily the identical meaning. This distinction is very important for teachers and students to recognize, because it is learning how to use the words within a cluster that brings precision to thinking, writing, and oral expression. Words such as acceptable and marvelous have a related meaning but not the same meaning. The words within a semantic or word cluster share a general meaning but differ in intensity and specificity. By focusing on words within clusters, E4 supports students in recognizing the elaborate networks and relationships among words.

    Word origins (Morphology)

    English words come primarily from two sources: Anglo-Saxon/Germanic or Romance/French. These origins are important to know as they influence the ways in which words are extended. Examples of words with Anglo-Saxon and Romance origins in the table below illustrate how words with these two different etymologies act:

    Table 1
    Examples of Generation of English Words of Anglo-Saxon and Romance Origins

    Word Formationcheckmark

    There are some prefixes and suffixes used with Anglo-Saxon words but these are usually quite simple (e.g., un- in unchecked or a- in asleep). The primary way in which new words are formed in Germanic languages is by combining words into compound words. As an Anglo-Saxon/Germanic language, English has numerous compound words (although proficient English speakers are so accustomed to these words that they are often unaware of them). A few of the thousands of compound words in English include cowboy, doghouse, greenhouse, into, playground, neckline, seaweed, tiptoe, and timetable.

    By contrast, the Romance words in English use a great many affixes, including several affixes simultaneously (e.g., verifiableness). Romance words are used in compound phrases such as “scientific method” but Romance words themselves are never joined together as a compound word.

    Knowing how words with the two primary historical origins of English behave is an aid to vocabulary proficiency. As the example of verify illustrates, recognizing one Romance word will often assist in grasping the meanings of an extensive group of words.

    Other morphological features

    One feature of English morphology that was not discussed in the previous section has to do with inflected endings and comparatives. Words from both Anglo-Saxon and Romance language origins add -s, -ed, and -ing to root words (although sometimes these endings have unique spellings). One morphological cluster that is unique to the Anglo-Saxon words are comparatives such as happy, happier, happiest and fast, faster, fastest.

    Uncovering for children the first level of morphology—inflected endings and comparatives—should happen in the primary grades. Making compound words explicit is also important. Words such as haircut and hairbrush make sense. Many compound words, however, fall into another category—word idioms. Why are there cowboys and cattlemen but not cowmen or cattleboys? Some language developments can’t be explained but, overall, there tends to be a sense of the original meanings of both words within a compound word.

    As students move through elementary school, increasing attention is given to words of Romance origins with closely related meanings. For example, students may examine similarities and differences among words that share the root facile—such as facilitate, facilitation, facilitator.

    Phrases and idioms

    We have emphasized idioms, common phrases, and popular or famous quotations in each of the E4 lessons. The phrases “ask someone out” and “speak outside” have very different meanings, but are clear to most fluent speakers of English. Learning groups of words that typically are associated with one another is an aspect of vocabulary instruction that is often forgotten but critical for students, especially non-native speakers of English.

    The words in phrases have at least some direct association with the meaning of the group of words. In idioms, the meanings of individual word and the group of words are more indirect and often seem far-fetched and even silly. For example, when someone is described as having “put all his eggs in one basket,” the meaning will not be obvious on first hearing or reading. The idioms of a cultural group are many. While the idioms that are provided in E4 are not the current ones of sub-groups such as teenagers (or teenagers who are also surfers, a sub-group within a sub-group), the inclusion of idioms will give students a sense of the inventiveness of daily language. For non-native speakers of English who have idioms in their own languages, awareness of this critical aspect of language will go a long way to increasing their vocabulary prowess.

    Key quotations revolving around a word or concept are also included in E4. A quotation like, “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies,” may baffle a person hearing it for the first time. Becoming facile with phrases, idioms, and quotations can be one of the hardest aspects of language learning for non-native speakers of a language since they form a type of “private” language within a language. Developing sensitivity to such expressions is a critical part of vocabulary development and instruction.

    How Can E4 be Used in a Classroom?

    E4 is intended to give teachers examples of the richness available in their classrooms on a daily basis. That is the fundamental aim of the material in the 32 lessons that follow. We talked with thousands of teachers across the country who were intrigued with the idea of enhancing their everyday classroom talk. They requested more background and ideas, which E4 provides.

    As we identified words for these lessons, we encountered much potential grist for instruction. Our hope is that E4 ratchets up the level of language use in classrooms, inspiring teachers to be more aware of their own vocabulary and to promote students’ curiosity about and use of words. Rather than being an added obligation or burden for teachers, our content is intended to be supportive, illustrative, and a source of encouragement.

    We see at least three possible approaches to using the E4 lessons. (Each successive level would include the previous level.)

    Level 1: Weekly focus word and its word cluster

    At the most basic level, we encourage teachers to pick one word per week to emphasize as part of everyday events. The teacher could develop a word map of the different synonyms for the focus word. Reminders and discussions about this weekly focus cluster could occur during the many transition in a school day such as getting organized for a task and moving around the school for different activities.

    We have provided blank forms on which students can record information about the words. Students might note the number of times they use the focus word in and out of the classroom, or they could record when they hear synonyms of the focus word. Teachers might encourage students to develop their own systems for keeping track of new words or of new meanings for words they already know.

    A school principal might suggest that the whole school share a weekly focus word. Some schools have even chosen to put words from the weekly cluster on the school announcement board (e.g., commendable, gratifying, congenial, recherché, stupendous).

    Photo of E4 word wall in a classroom

    Moreover, once a word has been “used,” it should not disappear. A display of learned words from previous weeks can be kept visible in the classroom on chart paper or a white board. Teachers could encourage students to add to the word cluster over the course of a school year. The  photo at right comes from a fourth-grade classroom where students added word cards with synonyms. The goal is for daily classroom language use to be rich and enriching.

    Level 2: Using the weekly focus word for a lesson on a word feature

    Vocabulary expansion involves learning the underlying systems of words, not simply the specific words. This approach is a primary focus of E4. According to the British National Word Corpus, there are approximately 750,000 words in English (Leech, Rayson, & Wilson, 2001). Many of these words either are archaic words (e.g., firkin, prithee) or share a root word with a group of words (e.g., adapt, adapting, adapted, adaptation, adaptations, adaptively). But even if about half the words are eliminated as archaic or morphologically “redundant,” 325,000 words still constitute quite a large group. If schools used a “word a day” approach for each of the 180 days of a school year to teach these 325,000 words, students would need 1,806 years to cover all the words! All the while, even more new words would be entering the language. In 2010, the Oxford English Dictionary added new words such as overleveraged (having taken on too much debt) and defriend (removing someone from a list of friends or contacts on a social networking site).

    Fortunately, as we have pointed out, words can be taught in clusters or networks. In E4, however, but we are emphasizing more than that. The aim of E4 is to support students in understanding the underlying systems or features of vocabulary—those characteristics we described above:

    • Polysemy or multiple meanings
    • Multiple parts of speech
    • Synonyms
    • Word origins (Morphology)
    • Other morphological features
    • Phrases and idioms

    Teachers could conduct a weekly lesson on a particular feature using the information that students captured about the weekly focus word. In these discussions, we encourage teachers to provide students with statements that summarize the features. The following chart provides short reminders that teachers can use with students for review.

    Word Reminders™

    Word Networks: Words are part of families or networks. When you learn the members of word families or networks, your vocabulary grows.

    Synonyms: Often, the meanings of words are connected to the meanings of other words. Many new words in books have meanings that are close to those of words you already know.

    Morphology: Many words belong to families of words that have the same root words and meanings.

    Multiple Meanings: Often, the same word has different meanings and uses.

    Phrases: When a word is part of a compound word or a phrase, its meaning can change.

    Word Origins: Many words in English came from French. French has a close connection to Spanish. The French/Spanish connection can often give clues about an English word’s meaning.

    Level 3: Using everyday words for intensive word study

    We have provided a substantial amount of information about word features in each lesson to aid in intensive word study. We provide guidelines for the selection of words and for the focus of the lessons, but the particular direction of a lesson is left to the discretion of the teacher. We stress that these lessons do not need to be long. We recommend short but consistent lessons, with appropriate discussions and repetitions of the Word Reminders. Consistent and short is better than infrequent and long.

    Selection of words. The choice of which words and which features of words to emphasize in a lesson will depend on the levels of the students. While Romance words will be more appropriate for middle graders (i.e., third through fifth graders) than for K–2 students, we do recommend choosing words that give students insights into several of the features of words simultaneously.

    Word features are listed in Table 1. Since the words have been chosen to emphasize their semantic richness, attending to synonyms will be a part of any lesson. But other features from the list in Table 1 can also be developed.

    For middle graders, words such as imagine, focus, or attentive are particularly appropriate since these words come from the Romance layer of English. As such, they are members of morphological families that are relatively large. Thus, in addition to the semantic links that these words have to synonyms, students can learn and review how Romance-based words are generated. These three words also have clear Spanish cognates that permit students who are native Spanish speakers to understand the strong foundation that they have in academic and literary English. These links to Spanish are also useful for native speakers of English and speakers of non-Spanish languages because they help uncover basic underlying features of our language.

    For K–2 students, words such as happy and sad or quiet and loud might be combined in a compare/contrast mode. Illustrating the ways in which words add endings (e.g., happier, happiest) could also be included in a lesson.

    Applying words. Students should be provided ample opportunity to employ words in different situations, such as in writing, in a discussion, or in some form of word play. These techniques are much better for helping children own a word, in comparison to merely listening to a teacher-led question-and-answer session. Here are some of our favorite word-learning strategies:

    • Word lines: Students order a group of words based on a dimension such as intensity. For example, how might the following words be placed on this line from ask to interrogate?

    question, inquire, interview, quiz, probe



    • Can you draw it? For students to draw images of words that are nouns is relatively easy. Drawing words that are verbs can be harder, but students could be encouraged to make drawings of people engaged in particular actions (e.g., lumbering). The products that we’ve seen from students for words such as courageous (e.g., a picture of a fireman) and even words such as resilient (a picture of a hard hat) indicate that students can often be more inventive than adults in extending their knowledge of words.

    • Describe it in a sentence: Margaret McKeown (1993) described the need for “child-friendly” definitions. Who better than a child to define a word in a friendly fashion? McKeown cautions, however, that a frequent ploy on the part of children (college students, too!) is to take the path of least resistance, as in: A majordomo is a person. While it is true that a majordomo is a person, what is unique about a majordomo goes beyond his or her humanness. Students should be encouraged to extend their definitions so that others understand the essence of the word, e.g., I would love to have a majordomo in my home to make certain we have good meals and that everyone gets to school and work on time.


    Leech, G., Rayson, P., & Wilson, A. (2001). Word frequencies in written and spoken English based on The British National Corpus. London: Longman.

    McKeown, M.G. (1993). Creating effective definitions for young word learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 28, 16–31.

    Scott, J.A., Skobel, B., & Wells, J. (2008). The word-conscious classroom: Building the vocabulary readers and writers need. New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.