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The Four Phases of Learning Vocabulary

Jordan Catapano

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.” This phrase accurately depicts what most teachers believe about vocabulary instruction for their students: Learning new words allows students to learn new concepts. But how do we get students to learn new words and actually use them?

Vocabulary instruction is particularly challenging to pin down because it comes at students from so many different angles. There are both “giving” and “receiving” components of vocabulary: Students are exposed to new words, and students are required to use new words themselves. Vocabulary is both a reading and writing skill.

There are a million different ways to incorporate vocabulary into any classroom’s curriculum, each with varying levels of applicability and effectiveness. Instead of walking you through “how to teach vocab,” I want to simply illustrate the different ways vocabulary instruction enters a classroom. This will make you more cognizant of which vocabulary skills you’re actually trying to target.

Ultimately, there are four unique phases of incorporating vocabulary understanding into any classroom’s curriculum. These are called “phases” because they represent the slow transition from seeing a word for the first time to fully understanding a word and being able to use it.

Phase One: Monitoring Level of Familiarity

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The very first vocabulary skill students need to possess is an ability to recognize their level of familiarity with any given word they encounter. Words generally fall into the category of being extremely familiar, slightly familiar, or completely new. If a student can perceive their level of understanding of a word, then they can know what to do with that word.

Phase Two: Attacking New Words While Reading

After recognizing words they don’t know at all or only slightly know, students then need to develop “attack skills” that help them use context, dictionaries, and word roots to understand what the word means within its given context.

Phase Three: Learning the Definition of a New Word

After students learn how to access the meaning of words they didn’t know, their next step is to internalize that word’s meaning. This means that they no longer need to go through the rigor of context clues, definitions, etc. to understand a word, but that they begin to naturally understand its meaning. So if they were to encounter that word again in a new setting, they would be able to deeply understand the usage of that word in its context.

Phase Four: Owning the Meaning of a Word

The last stage is when students actually “own” the meaning of a word. This means that not only do they fully understand a word when they read it, but they can actually use the word accurately themselves within their own communications.

So, the four phases of monitoring, attacking, applying to reading, and applying to communication are the four unique vocabulary skills that students need to master. Instead of merely distributing lists of terms students need to memorize, consider how you can get students through all four phases of vocabulary acquisition successfully. If you do, then they are much more likely to benefit from those words for a long, long time. 

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