Tip for Teaching Vocabulary & Word-Level Comprehension: Word Chunks

Q: What are  Word Chunks?

They’re simply the Greek and Latin parts of words (i.e. prefixes, roots, and suffixes) that make up most words in the English language.  Kelly Gallagher and Kylene Beers both talk about teaching vocabulary or word-level comprehension by means of introducing students to these word chunks. Mike Schmoker, author of Focus, explains that the most effective classrooms “repeatedly practice and master…the 50 most common transferable word chunks…to build up students’ reading vocabulary” (2011, p. 104).  In other words, the highest performing teachers make time to introduce these word components to students.

Q: Why should I introduce my students to Word Chunks instead of just teaching them a list of actual vocabulary words?

If teachers reveal what’s behind these repeated Word Chunks, students will 1) have a better grasp of how the chunks make up the meaning of individual words and 2) they’ll also gain a deeper understanding of texts as a whole, because we all know comprehension is essential to the game.  And let’s be honest: not all kids have caught on that these chunks are repeated throughout our language; furthermore, they don’t realize the chunks have meaning on their own.

I always thought that my students would develop better vocabularies by just reading more. (Reading more is the solution to all the world’s problems, isn’t it?) And yeah,  they do learn more words, but only to an extent.  This indirect, cross-my-fingers-and-hope-type of vocabulary instruction wasn’t cutting it, especially for those kids that come from print-poor homes. The word poverty was so dense in my room that students needed serious rehab in order to get back on track.

Initially, I used a list of SAT vocab words given to me by my department chair.  Now, you see, we don’t use the SAT in Michigan, and “list” is a bit of a blurry word for this haphazard collection of overhead transparencies, each depicting a word with a punny cartoon drawing on it: “The condor is full of candor.” (If I actually could find the picture from all those years ago, you’d see a big ol’ bird swooping down to chop on some smaller creature whilst calling out, “Be prepared. I am going to eat you.”) I’ll just speed up the year of agony on this one and let you know that giving kids a random splattering of 100+ words—even if they did have cute pictures—didn’t really work.

Kelly Gallagher’s Word Attack Strategy: “The 30-15-10 List” (from Deeper Reading, p. 73)

Then <cue the cheesy music>, Kelly Gallagher walked in to my life, and a new intellectual crush was born.  Reading Reasons.  Deeper Reading.  Readicide. These books totally changed my understanding of reading instruction provided by my EDU 100-level courses.  

In terms of instruction, most reading/writing workshop teachers have pushed rote memorization out of the classroom; however, Gallagher says that it does have a place—albeit limited—in terms of memorizing the meaning of the most common word chunks.  He’s “not advocating some of those word dissection programs where students are asked to memorize hundreds and hundreds of prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The amount of time spent on these programs takes away from reading time, which is where the most effective vocabulary acquisition occurs. But students can benefit from knowing —that is, memorizing—some of the ‘staples'” (2004, p. 72). <<P.S. This don’t-buy-the-program talk reminds me of Teri Lesesne’s UNprogram post >>. Essentially, Gallagher says that if we want our students to comprehend the vocabulary in complex texts, they need to memorize the meaning behind the core chunks of most words.

Q: How should I roll out my instruction of the Word Chunks?

Gallagher provides 55 of the most common chunks in Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12 (2004). Like Gallagher, I dole them out to students five terms at time, snowballing the list slowly until I am convinced that they’ve mastered all of the terms.  For example, I might introduce #1-5 in the first week, #1-10 in the second week, and then stick with #1-15 for the third and fourth week, before adding another five terms in the fifth week.

Word Chunks Pre-Test on Google Forms

Initially, of course, I do a pre-test with my students.  This is very quick and informal, because I use Google Forms to create the quiz.

Get the actual document here: Word Chunks – Student Study Pack

After that, my students work from a document that I created, drawing on Robert Marzano’s research about best practice for acquiring vocabulary, which includes drawing visual representations and generating word examples that use the chunk.

Generally, we spend under ten minutes of direct instruction on this each week; however, my students could easily suck up more of our class time as they try to impress one another with more unique examples of the word chunk in practice. So, I caution you to be aware of this early on when you introduce this to your students.

As we move through the 55 terms, I do mini-quizzes about every other week. These quizzes gather the snowballed list in a varied fashion (i.e. the terms that we’ve mastered—or should’ve mastered by now—are absolute fill-in-the-blank and the newer terms—especially when we get later into the big list—have some matching word-bank options). These quizzes are combined with our Mentor Sentences study, so about half the quiz is on the Word Chunks and the other half is on our Sentence-of-the-Week. <<I’ll try to do another post sometime soon to share how Jeff Anderson helped me face my fear of teaching grammar by introducing Mentor Sentences to my students.>>

While it took me a little getting used to, this notion of having my students memorize a concrete list of terms, the impact on their comprehension is just so obvious.  I see the students independently applying the meanings during reading conferences or collectively grappling with the meanings across our curriculum. For example, during our Great Depression unit in U.S. History, they had a very lively conversation about the term “mortgage,” because “mort” means die or death: “Aaagh! It’s ‘mort’ because you’ll be paying the bank ’til you die!” Even the math and science teachers on my team say that our students use the word chunks to help define academic vocabulary in their classes. With that… what more could I ask for? 🙂

14 thoughts on “Tip for Teaching Vocabulary & Word-Level Comprehension: Word Chunks

  1. I agree with the “perfect timing” post. I just shared Kelly Gallagher’s list with a coworker last week and we were brainstorming how to incorporate it into our 8th grade classes. Can’t wait to try some of your ideas!

  2. Excellent post. You’re so good at reading the gurus, taking their best parts, thinking about your students and their needs, and focusing on what’s most important. I’ll definitely be sharing this post with my colleagues. Thanks again!

    • Thanks, Mark! I really appreciate that, because–in my mind–that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with the blog: share practical ways of applying what the literacy masters suggest! 🙂

  3. Excellent post! This gave me what I needed to go to our curriculum department for a change of memorizing spelling words to working on this list. They actually listened and now things are (hopefully) going to change this year for my fellow teachers. I know I’m changing right away! Is there any way you are willing to share your worksheets and Google forms with me? Thanks!

  4. Erica, I enjoyed reading this blog post. I’ve had it saved in Safari on my iPhone for a while now. My Pre-AP students could benefit from this focused approach on word chunks. I will try to start implementing it after fall break. Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks, Jason! I’d love to hear how you’re using word chunks with your Pre-AP students. You know I’m always geeked to hear how you modify things for your classroom. 🙂

  5. I agree with everything you’ve said, however, what do I do in regards to vocabulary words in a novel? The objective is to make sure students comprehend the words in order to comprehend the text. With these types of words I would just front load the definitions and then I would focus on roots/prefixes/suffixes/tier 2 and 3 words in another lesson. In your opinion, am I going about this correctly?

    • Thanks for the great question, Blia. You’re exactly right! I don’t use rely on Latin words chunks as the be-all-end-all of vocabulary instruction. It’s still necessary to identify terms and phrases that are critical to understanding a given topic, like in a novel or Article of the Week.

      When it comes to this kind of academic vocab, I follow what Marzano says In Classroom Instruction that Works (2001). He suggests we choose the ESSENTIAL academic vocab terms and front load with the following five-step process of instruction:
      1. Present students with a brief explanation of the new term
      2. Present students with a visual for the term
      3. Ask students to generate their own explanations of the term
      4. Ask students to create their own visuals for the term
      5. As students read over the next few weeks, ask students to review their definitions and sketches in comparison to new texts

      I notice that when I rush through these stages or skip one of the steps, my students’ understanding of the text is limited. The same goes for choosing too many essential terms. It’s about finding that balance appropriate for each class, and it sounds like you’re doing just that! Thanks again for expanding the conversation. 🙂

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