Posted in Skill Spotlights

Skill Spotlight: Vocabulary in Informational Text

Sound familiar?  Students give an example or a description when you ask what a words mean.  Yeah, a chrysalis is a chrysalis that the butterfly wraps up in!  You know they have the right idea, but they can’t quite get it out.

Defining new vocabulary is something that can be difficult for elementary students. Often, instead of a definition we get a description or an example, as seen above. Much like my skill spotlight on retelling, this is a skill that seems easier than it actually is.

The way informational texts deal with vocabulary varies widely.  When students struggle with this skill, choosing the right texts becomes very important. Today we’ll take a look into tiers of vocabulary and choosing texts to support students

Tiers of Vocabulary

The Common Core State Standards Appendix A discusses the three tiers of vocabulary.  All three tiers are vital to reading comprehension, but “learning tier 2 and tier 3 words typically requires more deliberate effort…” (Appendix A).screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-4-01-57-pm-1

The standards call for special attention to Tier 2 words.  These are words that are used across content and topics and are generally not defined in context, making them both more usable in daily life, and harder to figure out.  (That’s a post for another day!)

Beginning in second grade though, the standards also call for students to be able to determine the meaning of Tier 3, or domain-specific, vocabulary words.

How do I pick books for tier three vocabulary practice?

If you’re starting to pick up a theme for this blog, you know that I’m going to say text selection matters.  Just handing students any old nonfiction text when they are struggling with defining tier three words isn’t nearly deliberate enough on our part.

How tier three words appear in the text makes a huge difference in the level of effort required to determine their meanings.


Here are some common scenarios in which tier three vocabulary appears, listed from easier scenarios to harder.

Definition appears in a text box on the same page that the word is found in context:The definition is stated explicitly, so students don’t have to infer what a word means from context.  For most students, this makes this a fairly easy scenario in which to define a new word.  (Keep in mind, though, that for students who tend to skip over text features, this would be a more difficult scenario).

In this example from the National Geographic Kids book Planets by Elizabeth Carney, many domain-specific words are defined in text boxes nearby.

Embedded definition in context with picture support:  While students still don’t have to infer a definition, typically these definitions are contained in clauses within a complex sentence.  Navigating this sentence structure can create more of a challenge, however, pictures that give a visual of the new word can compensate for this.

In this example from Nic Bishop’s Butterflies and Moths, the sentence contains a definition (“a long feeding tube”) and the picture also shows a clear picture of the proboscis.

Embedded definition without picture support: Just like in the example above, students don’t have to infer a definition, but they do have to navigate trickier sentence structure, except this time, without picture support.

In Dolphin Talk Whistles, Clicks, and Clapping Jaws by Wendy Pfeffer, the definition is embedded in the sentence, but the pictures isn’t much help.

Definition can be inferred from context and picture support:  This scenario is slightly harder.  The sentence doesn’t define the word directly, but contains information that would help the reader infer a definition.  The picture also contains helpful information that would support students in their attempt to define the word.

In looking at this example from the prolific Bobbie Kalman’s Tadpoles to Frogs, students could infer that gills are  a body part on a tadpole that help it breathe under water.

Definition can be inferred from context (no picture support):

Nic Bishop writes about butterflies again in an easier reader for Scholastic called simply Butterflies.  While the text level is easier than Butterflies and Moths, in this example readers have to rely on context alone to define molt.

Use of a glossary is necessary*:  In a big ol’ pile of nonfiction ranging from first to fifth grade levels, I couldn’t find an example of a tier three word that could ONLY be defined using the glossary.  I did find, though, that some tier two words fit this scenario.  This is tough because readers have to realize a word is new to them, check for clues on the page where the word is located, then check for a glossary.


In these examples, from the Pebble Plus book Ants and Their Nests by Linda Tagliaferro, the context and picture don’t support defining the tier two word “chambers” but the glossary contains a definition.

What are your best tips for helping students with new vocabulary in nonfiction text? Leave them in the comments!

Posted in Skill Spotlights

Skill Spotlight: Retelling

Retelling is a perfect skill to work on at the beginning of the school year. It’s the foundation for so much of the deeper comprehension work that you’ll do as the year goes on.  Sometimes, though, getting kids to retell can feel like pulling teeth.  Just say what happened!   Just tell it in order!

When this happens, the cause often comes down to our text selection (our own pick of the lit, you might say.)

Children’s literature often appears simple.  However these books, like all narrative text, can be organized with a wide variety of plot structures.  The more complex the plot structure, the harder the text will be to retell.

Take, for instance, Vera B. William’s A Chair for My Mother.  Its 32 pages and brightly colored illustrations might make it seem uncomplicated.  But in these 32 pages, readers must navigate a flashback, as the narrator remembers when the family’s old apartment burned down.  The action then returns to the present and the quest for the chair.  This text might present the first opportunity some students will have navigating a text that doesn’t follow a chronological timeline.  Retelling here would require students to have understood that the story went back in time and returned to the present, and then to be able to reorganize that information in order to retell.

26502934915_d094068906_bRobert McCloskey’s classic Blueberries for Sal is another text that appears simpler than it actually is.  We could call this a “meanwhile” story.  McCloskey alternates between telling us what Sal and her mother are doing and what the baby bear and the baby bear’s mother are doing.  All of the action is happening simultaneously, but is relayed separately, presenting a challenge for a reader who must retell what Sal was doing and, meanwhile, what the baby bear was doing.  Not so easy.

 As teachers, then, text selection is key to the success of any reading lesson in which we aim to teach retelling.   We must examine books with the lens of plot organization and choose according for our students’ needs.  If students struggle, we should treat plot structure as a continuum along which we can move students in their retelling work, moving from the most basic structures to the more complex.

Here is a list of some plot structures commonly found in picture books, arranged from easiest to most difficult, along with titles that fit the category. Use these lists to guide your students to become master retellers!

1. Beginning, Repetitive Pattern, Ending

This is the most simple of narrative structure, and thus the simplest to retell.  The story begins, something keeps on happening, then something might change to bring about the ending.  Many early readers follow this structure, making the text predictable to decode and the plot easier to hold on to. Beginning

Books that follow this plot structure:

2. Rising Action-simple

story mountainAfter students have mastered the retelling of the “beginning, repeating pattern, ending” retell, they will be ready to retell stories with a simple problem/solution structure, also referred to as a Rising Action structure, represented in the image to the left.  The mountain itself is lopsided, because so much more of a story is generally dedicated to the rise up to the problem and the attempts to solve it, than to the resolution of the story.  The vast majority of children’s stories follow this plot structure.  Variability for difficulty might come in the length of the “seeds of trouble” and “attempts to fix the problem” sections of the plot.

Books with a simple rising action structure:

3. Rising Action -complex

These stories share a similar structure to the rising action-simple stories above, but that story mountain might have a few more peaks and valleys on the way up or down.  You might even be climbing two mountains at once (hello, subplots!).  These would be our stories with flashbacks, flashforwards, or large jumps in time,  our “meanwhile” stories, stories with parallel plots, subplots, or stories with multidimensional problems.   These could each have their own category, but for the purpose of picking books for retelling, if the text you are considering has any of these, know that it is going to present a deeper challenge.

Books with a complex rising action structure: