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V.3 #5 Literacy - May I Have A Word With You?

This week, I read a graduate student’s plan for a vocabulary lesson. Surprisingly, it included the word gumshoe. I was instantly intrigued. I hadn’t seen or heard any reference to that word in many years, and I probably won’t unless I’m reading an old crime novel or watching a movie on a classic film channel. This got me thinking about all the words I know that are related to gumshoe: private investigator, investigator, P.I., private eye, detective, sleuth, flat foot, and so on. Images of familiar characters came to mind, too: Dick Tracy and Sam Spade. Then, my mind wandered to other types of mystery-solvers I know (not necessarily gumshoes); Miss Marple, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, Lieutenant Columbo, Kay Scarpetta, and the like. Related thoughts were of trench coats, concealed weapons, fake/multiple identifications, forensics, cameras, memo pads, badges, flashing neon signs, streetlights, and of course, quiet shoes. “Ninja shoes”, as my elementary students would call them today.

Having a broad vocabulary enhances your understanding of text in ways that are unexpected and far-reaching. When we encounter a word, our imaginations can be ignited, our vocabulary bank can be activated, our ability to question can be improved, and our wonderment can be initiated.

Vocabulary knowledge is related to comprehension and we can understand why. When we have an extensive vocabulary we have many more opportunities to interact with words. That is, to think about multiple meanings, implied messages, and concept connections. We have the ability to recognize these words and their meanings and can actually use the words in thinking, speaking, and/or writing.

How does one effectively teach and reinforce vocabulary? Throughout my school years, I remember being assigned 10-20 words a week to memorize (depending on the grade). First we took a vocabulary “pretest”. Then, words were written a few times each (Monday), then listed with definitions (Tuesday), then used in a sentence (Wednesday). Perhaps your end of week culminating task was to create a crossword puzzle (Thursday). Finally, a re-test (this one counted) on Friday. Drudgery, to say the least! Undoubtedly, these words were taken from the upcoming unit of our vocabulary workbooks. They were taught in isolation and were rarely connected to the passages we were reading. They were considered to be grade-appropriate, and may or may not have appeared on standardized assessments later in the school year.

If youngsters are to become proficient adult readers, the type of vocabulary instruction I described would probably not get them there. Some research supports the notion that readers learn the meanings of more words from reading and using language than by direct instruction of vocabulary words. However, many direct instructional methods are sound and effective and should be used along with indirect methods (Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, 2001).

The four-square strategy (Eeds & Cockrum, 1985) is one direct instruction method that helps students use prior knowledge to increase vocabulary. It is interesting, easy, and can be executed by teachers, parents, or peer tutors. Here are the few simple steps required:

  1. Select a word that you predict is unfamiliar to the reader (Ex: audacious: adventurous; recklessly bold);

  2. Ask the readers to fold a piece of paper into quarters and write the word audacious in the first box;

  3. Use the word in the appropriate context (Ex: That pilot flies the plane in an audacious manner);

  4. Ask, “Is there an activity you believe is adventurous? One in which a fearless person might participate?”;

  5. Have readers write an example of an audacious activity in the second box (Ex: extreme sports);

  6. The third square is reserved for a non-example of the word; something that is NOT audacious (Ex: sipping a cup of tea in a quiet room);

  7. In the fourth square, the readers’ own words are used to define the word (to be daring)

By using it in context, thinking of examples, naming an opposite, and re-phrasing the definition in their own words, readers begin to internalize the vocabulary. With lots of words in the bank, it is easier for readers to make text to self, text to text, and text to world connections as they read. There’s no mystery in that. Therefore, no gumshoe required.


Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement. (2001). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read. The Partnership for Reading: National Institute for Literacy; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and U.S. Department of Education.

Eeds, M. & Cockrum, W.A. (1985). Teaching word meanings by expanding schemata vs. dictionary work vs. reading in context. Journal of Reading, 28, 492-497.

Gipe, J.P. (2010). Multiple paths to literacy: Assessment and differentiated instruction for diverse learners K-12 (7th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Shanker, J.L. & Cockrum, W.A. (2009). Locating and correcting reading difficulties (9th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

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Karen Russo, Ed. D. is an Assistant Professor in the Child Study Department of St. Joseph’s College in New York. There, she teaches both undergraduate and graduate level courses related to elementary education and literacy instruction. Before joining the college faculty, she was an Assistant Principal of a New York City elementary school, a literacy specialist, teacher mentor, and staff developer. Dr. Russo has presented at local, national and international conferences and has published articles on differentiating instruction, enhancing motivation of struggling readers and writers, and effective professional development for teachers. She is an Editor for Insights on Learning Disabilities and has served as a Consulting Editor for Reading Writing Quarterly.

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