Vocabulary Instruction Through Stories and Expansion

"Promising Practice” Ideas for Closing Connecticut’s Achievement Gaps

Donna D. Merritt, Ph.D., CCC

Vocabulary proficiency has been documented to be a primary predictor in learning to read, and, subsequently, reading to learn in the content areas. As established by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley in "Meaningful Differences in the Lives of …" (1995), administrators, general and special educators, and student support services professionals cannot assume that all children come to school having had sufficient opportunities listening to and experimenting with words.

Linking vocabulary instruction to stories using word origins is a viable teaching approach that is appealing to students at all grade levels. It is also effective, as typically developing and at-risk students, as well as those with identified special education needs, can rely on the narrative structure of the story to learn vocabulary. This process aids recall and use of words in meaningful contexts related to the curriculum.

ow To Link Words With Stories

Identify the origin of key curricular vocabulary. Dictionaries provide some of this information, but it is also accessible on the Web using a site such as www.wordorigins.org. See the examples below for some ideas. Initially present information about how the word originated or has changed over time. Then develop these ideas into a story appropriate for the students’ grade, interests, and culture. Alternatively, students can develop their own original stories in oral, written, or dramatic forms, individually or in cooperative groups.

Some Vocabulary Examples

“Hocus-pocus” is known to modern day children as a phrase that produces magical results. “Hocus-Pocus” was actually the name of an early-17th century English juggler who captivated his audience by incorporating the word into his act.

The word “posh” dates back to the 1920s. This acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home was printed on the tickets of first-class ocean liner passengers traveling from England to India. The port side of the ship had the coolest cabins and best view on the way to India. The starboard cabins had the same advantage on the return voyage. From this word origin, “posh” came to mean elegant, luxurious, or fashionable.

“Deadline” originally had a literal meaning. During the Civil War, a line was drawn on the ground indicating the perimeter of makeshift prisoner-of-war camps. Prisoners who crossed the deadline met their demise. It was not until the 1920s that the meaning of “deadline” as a time limit became part of newspaper jargon.

“Sorts” were individual wooden letter tiles used in the 18th century to set type for announcements and newspapers. Typesetters were known to become irritable when they were “out of sorts.” As the printing industry modernized and “sorts” became obsolete, the phrase continued its association with a bad disposition.

Expanding Vocabulary

“Deadline” and “out of sorts” are Americanisms, but most American words, as well as those from other cultures (e.g., Spanish), originate from Latin, Greek, German, or Anglo-Saxon derivations. Teachers across all content areas can help children expand their vocabulary by:

  1. establishing the etymological base of a word (i.e., tracing the root word back as far as possible to its original language source),
  2. applying knowledge of the word’s origin to contemporary usage, emphasizing its application in the context of the lesson, and
  3. systematically bridging from simple to more complex or obscure forms or applying the word to other contexts.
A Vocabulary Expansion Example

“Sign” derives from the Latin word signum, meaning “mark.” This serves as the root for words such as signal, signature, signify, significant, signet (an official mark on a document), and signatory (the person who signs an official document). Other derivations common to this word are sign up, sign off, and sign away. An understanding of this single root word has applications across the grades and several content area subjects.

As teachers introduce the essential vocabulary of a content unit or work of literature, they can expose students to many words simultaneously. This differentiates instruction and provides opportunities for students of various ability levels to access the curriculum. The approach also helps to demystify the English language, connect roots words across cultures and languages, and has the added benefit of improving the probability of spelling accuracy. It can be beneficial for all students, but has particular applicability for English Language Learners and those students with vocabulary weaknesses or gaps.

Be sure to also visit SERC’s Integrated Student Support Services (ISSS) Initiative Web page for vocabulary instruction technology links.

Additional Info

  • Resource Topic: Learning Disabilities, Literacy, Special Education, Support Services
  • Source: SERC
  • Year of Publication: 2012
  • Resource Type: Article (web page)