Teacher Talk: Strategies for Teaching Incidental Vocabulary

Are you purposely teaching incidental vocabulary? Improve your teacher talk. Simply weave definitions and pictures into daily lessons. From this, kids’ vocabularies grow. Furthermore, they learn how to determine meanings of unknown words in text.

Use teacher talk to teach incidental vocabulary!

Ms. Sneed Uses Teacher Talk

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sat with her new student teacher before school. “In our ELA block, we’re preparing to teach strategies for finding word meaning in text,” she said. “Today, however, I’d like you to listen for ways I sneak incidental vocabulary into every lesson you teach. You can jot them down, and we’ll talk about them later.”

“Okay,” said Mr. Grow. He opened his mouth to ask a question. However, at that very moment, the bell rang. Students streamed into the classroom. The daily bustle began.

Teaching Incidental Vocabulary with Appositional Phrases

“If you’d like to order lunch,” Ms. Sneed announced, “queue up, or line up, here.” The teacher waved her arm to indicate a line away from the door.

Mr. Grow grabbed his pen. Really? She began teaching incidental vocabulary with the first sentence of the day?? He wrote, “Queue up = line up.”

When you teach, use appositional phrases to introduce new vocabulary naturally. Your teacher talk will help!
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Teaching Incidental Vocabulary with Word Parts

Once the students took their seats, Ms. Sneed began math. “Today we’ll talk about perimeter.” She took the cap off her dry erase marker and wrote the word on the board. “This word has two parts: meter, which means measure, and peri, which means around.”

Ms. Sneed drew a rectangle. “So, to find perimeter, we measure the distance around a rectangle.

“When I say peri,” she continued, “I think of a periscope.” She wrote the word and drew a picture. “Scope means look, so periscope means look around. How handy is it to know word parts?

“And then there’s periodontist. “Odont means teeth, and ist means one who. So a periodontist is a person who works on the area around your teeth. Gum specialist might be an easier way to say it.”

Interrupt instruction by breaking words into parts. Here, teacher talk breaks down the words perimeter, periscope, and periodontist.

A child waved his arm. “Cameron?” Ms. Sneed inquired.

“Did you know that Odontoceti is the scientific name for tooted whale?” he asked.

“Brilliant!” his teacher responded. “Now, unfortunately, it’s back to finding the perimeter of rectangles…”

Mr. Grow continued to listen for incidental vocabulary during science.

Ms. Sneed began, “Today we’ll focus on experimental design. A true experiment involves three types of variables. What do you think that word, variable, means?”

A few students raised their hands tentatively. “Bruce?” Ms. Sneed prompted. She walked to the side of the room, leaned against the counter, and listened attentively.

“Well, variable sounds like vary, and that means like change.”

Ms. Sneed nodded. “Jessima?”

“And we already learned in math that a variable is a letter standing for any value. In other words, it can be changed.”

“Great. Thanks, guys. So we’ve established that a variable is something that can be changed.”

The teacher walked back to the front of the room. “Experimental design involves three types of variables: independent, dependent, and controlled.” As she talked, Ms. Sneed picked up a marker and wrote the terms on the whiteboard.

“Let’s see if you can help me with these terms. Turn and talk with your neighbor.”

The room buzzed with discussion. After a short period of time, Ms. Sneed clapped her hands. Immediately, the students clapped back and became silent.

Ask your students to determine word meanings with related terms. It models the metacognitive process you'd like them to use whenever they encounter an unknown word.

Independent, Dependent, and Controlled

“What might independent mean?” Lots of hands shot up. “Seth?”

“When I do something independently, I do it alone.”

Ms. Sneed nodded her head, beneath independent variable, she wrote, “Only one.”

“Yes, we can only have one independent variable,” she said. “It’s the basis of the experiment. For example, if we wanted to find out how fertilizer affected plant growth, our independent variable would be how much fertilizer each plant got.”

“What about dependent?” More hands raised. “Judah?”

“Adults are always saying, ‘It depends.’ That usually means going to my friend’s house depends on me cleaning my room.” Everyone laughed, including Ms. Sneed. She wrote, “It depends,” beneath dependent variable.

“Uh huh. The dependent variable depends on the independent variable. Because we’re changing the amount of fertilizer, for example, the height of each plant will differ. We measure to find out how tall each is.” Ms. Sneed wrote, “We measure.”

Slowly, Ms. Sneed made her way around to her student teacher’s seat. “Mr. Grow, would you like to help out?” He looked a little tentative but nodded his head.

“Okay, who can guess what controlled variable means?” he asked. Several hands raised in the air. “Tabitha?”

“Control is like power,” she said. “I guess a controlled variable is something you control.”

Beneath controlled variable, Ms. Sneed wrote, “We control.”

Then she continued the discussion. “All the other variables are controlled. For example, in our fertilizer experiment we would have the same plants, same dirt, same containers, same temperature, same sunlight, same amount of water, etc. Same, same, same! We control everything else to be sure that our results – or dependent variable – measures the affect of our independent variable.”

Ms. Sneed and Mr. Grow Discuss Teaching Incidental Vocabulary

At the end of the day, Ms. Sneed pulled a chair up to Mr. Grow’s desk. “Let’s talk about teacher talk,” she said. “What did you discover today?”

Talking Up

“Well, I noticed that you talked up to your class. You weren’t afraid of using uncommon terms.” Ms. Sneed nodded.

“Additionally, I found three strategies that you use often. First, you plopped a definition right in your sentence. For example, at the beginning of the day you said, “Queue up, or line up, here.”

“Um hm,” said Ms. Sneed. “I use appositional phrases – just like they do in science and social studies books. That way kids hear the definition. They don’t have to stop my instruction to ask. Furthermore, they don’t miss the meaning altogether.”

“Second,” Mr. Grow continued, “you stop to show kids word parts along the way. I liked the way that you taught perimeter by breaking it down. In addition, you introduced kids to periscope and periodontist.

“And third, you asked kids to figure out words using similar words. In your science lesson, they found the meanings for independent, dependent, and controlled variables that way.”

Ms. Sneed smiled. “Yes, these powerful strategies help me teach incidental vocabulary. Kids pick it up along the way. No need for formal instruction or assessment. Just as important, these moments reinforce metacognitive strategies for determining meaning of unknown words.”

Mr. Grow frowned. “Metacognitive?”

“Oops! I should have used an appositive,” Ms Sneed said. “Metacognitive strategies occur when kids think about their own thinking or learning. When we work on finding word meaning in text, I want kids to use appositives, context, word parts, and related words. Modeling it as I teach reinforces the process.”

Repeating and Replacing

Ms. Sneed took a sip of her water. Then she continued. “Tomorrow as we teach together, listen as I repeat words I’ve previously introduced. As a matter of fact, tomorrow, I will not use an appositive when I ask them to queue up. Replacing everyday language with uncommon words helps kids build their vocabularies.”

Practice Makes Perfect

“Although we’ve only talked about a few instances, I noticed that you use strategies for teaching incidental vocabulary all the time,” Mr. Grow said. “I don’t think I can do that.”

Ms. Sneed chuckled. “Yep, the teaching struggle is real. In the beginning, I felt the same way. But my mentor encouraged me.

“Over time, teacher talk became more natural. But, believe me, I still have to think about it. I guess you could call it a purposeful habit.”

Mr. Grow didn’t look convinced.

His mentor smiled gently. “Think of it as a challenge. That will help you enjoy teaching with teacher talk.”

The teacher slid a sheet of paper toward Mr. Grow. “This article, ‘How Teacher Talk Affects Student Vocabulary Growth’ by Dr. Louisa Motes, explains how teachers’ habits affect their students’ vocabulary acquisition. I know you have to write about what you’ve learned in the classroom, so this should help.”

Mr. Grow sighed deeply. “Don’t worry,” said Ms. Sneed. “Teaching is a journey, not a destination. The best teachers keep learning every day.”

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