Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Featured Article

The Vocabulary Lab Project: Bridging the Vocabulary Gap
Daniel H. Shanahan

Vocabulary building is an especially great challenge for English language learners. While their peers are increasing their word knowledge within an English language context, ELLs struggle not only to learn these new words, but also to learn them within the context in a new language. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that children who come to school with limited word knowledge cannot rely solely on otherwise effective methods such as extensive reading and vocabulary-rich oral discourse to increase their vocabulary (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Calderón & Minaya-Rowe, 2004; Carlo et al., 2004; August & Shanahan, 2006; Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). Instead, these children require direct vocabulary instruction with multiple meaningful exposures—productive and receptive—to bridge the vocabulary gap with their English-dominant peers.

The staff at one school—PS 246 in the Bronx—tackled the vocabulary-gap problem through an innovative design called “The Vocabulary Lab Project.” The Lab developed vocabulary instruction expertise in a small cadre of teachers and built an infrastructure that facilitated teacher collaboration, observations, mentoring, intervisitations, and structured professional development—all to serve the purpose of bridging the gap of word knowledge for ELLs from kindergarten to sixth grade. The teachers in this cadre would turnkey their knowledge of and experiences with vocabulary teaching to their colleagues in a professional development lab structure.

Principles of Vocabulary Instruction

The Vocabulary Lab project was guided by six research-based principles of vocabulary learning. These principles posit that classroom vocabulary instruction must be direct, interactive, daily, systematic, cyclical, and related to students’ background knowledge.

Direct instruction refers to explicit teaching of work meaning and use. Direct instructional strategies include:     modeling and demonstrating the uses of words through precise examples and multiple contexts; providing students and eliciting from them multiple examples of use and meaning of new words; making clear connections and associations to students’ prior knowledge through synonyms and antonyms; and organizing word meanings through semantic mapping.

Interactive learning involves the productive use of new words in multiple contexts. It is the application of new words that cements them into the student’s receptive vocabulary (words that are understood in context) and productive vocabulary (words the student can correctly produce in discourse and/or in writing). Interactive learning involves all four language modalities. In speaking, students produce the words in meaningful contexts through examples and playing word games. New words are also encountered frequently in students’ reading through multiple sources that go beyond textbooks and storybooks to include picture captions, teacher-and student-made materials, captioned video, and periodicals. In writing, students are encouraged to choose lower frequency words whenever appropriate and engage in other writing activities such as a class dictionary. To encourage acquisition through listening, teachers fold in new words into everyday interactions through rephrasing student utterances using target words and displaying target words in a variety of media such as songs, video, speeches and presentations, and podcasts.

Students should expect that each day include some focus on vocabulary development. Daily instruction reinforces for students that their vocabulary level can never be static; in addition it develops a strong sense of “word consciousness” whereby students become “vocabulary vigilant” and seek out higher level words and opportunities to use these words.

Predictable classroom vocabulary routines indicate a systematic approach to word learning. Students anticipate routines such as vocabulary pre-teaching, comprehension checks, use of context clues and word parts, and the efficient use of the dictionary and thesaurus.

Vocabulary is best learned when words are recycled throughout the school year. Cyclical vocabulary teaching promotes an awareness of the subtleties of word meanings and use and allows students to extend their understanding of the words to more and more contexts, thus deepening their understanding of the word for both their productive and receptive vocabulary.

New words are related to students’ background knowledge to promote acquisition and ownership of the words. Learning new vocabulary words extends students’ knowledge base not only of the words themselves, but also of the concepts that the words represent. Vocabulary learning is not just learning new labels for familiar concepts; it is learning deeper and more precise meaning of concepts and knowledge of the world.


Instructional Techniques

The instructional approach of the Vocabulary Lab Project was based on work by researchers such as Beck, McKeown, & Kucan,  (2002) and Calderon and Minaya-Rowe (2004). One key element to systematic vocabulary teaching that the project emphasized was to choose between eight and 10 words a week to explore more and more deeply each day. Focusing on these target words for about 10 to 15 minutes a day allowed the nuances of the words’ meaning and range of uses of the word to become clearer.

Once key vocabulary words were chosen, teachers followed a number of steps to develop a richer understanding of word meanings, including: explaining the meaning with student-friendly definitions, examples, and illustrations; providing multiple opportunities for students to interact in exploring the meaning of the words (through a “turn and talk” about their experiences with the concept of the word; through student physical demonstrations of the word meaning, etc.); offering examples of how the word is used; asking students to produce the word two or three times in some meaningful context (many times vocabulary is “taught” without the students ever uttering the word themselves!); and engaging students in activities over a five-day period to develop mastery of the words’ nuances and uses. Students were also encouraged to become “word wizards,” (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002) and gained points for words they brought to class, along with the context in which the words were observed. Teachers also used numerous graphic displays of words and word concepts such as meaning-based “word walls”; charts of lower frequency synonyms (“$5,000 words”); and computer screen savers that cycled words, definitions, sample sentences, and pictorial associations throughout the day.

Vocabulary Lab

The Vocabulary Lab project was designed to provide teachers at PS 246 with knowledge of and experiences with teaching vocabulary using the principles listed above. Professional development activities were a key component of the Lab. Lab cohort teachers, as well as other K-6 teachers of ELLs and reading specialists in the school, participated in workshops that demonstrated vocabulary activities, reviewed research on effective practices, and promoted the overall goal of strengthening the faculty’s “word consciousness.”

Another key component to the Lab was lesson planning, in which cohort teachers were guided through the process of incorporating vocabulary activities into content lessons in ways that were meaningful and comprehensive, yet unobtrusive. The Lab teachers and other instructors participated in many vocabulary lesson observations—both live and videotaped—which were followed by reflective conversations that highlighted the connection between the demonstrated lesson and the principles for vocabulary instruction. The observed lessons demonstrated many types of vocabulary activities and ways the activities could be embedded into the subject-area curricula. The videotaped lessons were also used as presentations in subsequent workshops and included in the school’s burgeoning video archive for later use by other teachers.

The project developed two vocabulary-based tools for teachers: a lesson planning template and an observation protocol. The planning template helped organize vocabulary instruction based on the following elements: key vocabulary (words that were studied in depth over a number of lessons); incidental vocabulary or “mentionables” (words that required short explanation in order to aid in comprehension of the immediate content but were not the focus of in-depth instruction); materials; procedures for direct instruction of vocabulary; and practice and authentic use of vocabulary.

The second tool—the observation protocol—was designed to guide observers to find evidence of instructional strategies, opportunities, and classroom features for building word knowledge. Observers were prompted to explore the physical classroom setting for evidence of a vocabulary-rich environment by noting the incidence of association of print and word meaning, use of technology for vocabulary learning, and meaning-based graphic displays of words and concepts.


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Calderón, M., & Minaya-Rowe, L. (2004). Expediting comprehension to English language learners (ExCELL) teachers manual.

Columbia, MD:Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University.

Carlo, M. S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C. E., Dressler, C. ,Lippman, D. N., Lively, T. J., & White, C. E. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of English language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly 39 (2):188-215.

Short, D., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2007). Double the work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners — A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

About the Author

Daniel H. Shanahan is currently director of the Bilingual/ESL Technical Assistance Center (BETAC) at Ulster BOCES in New Paltz. Prior to this position he served as the ELL educational consultant to the children’s television series Between the Lions, and director of research and education at the children’s educational television production company Sirius Thinking, Ltd., where he was the principal investigator of five literacy-based research and development projects on this television series. As the former director of the New York City BETAC at Hunter College, Dr. Shanahan was the coordinator and principal writer of the New York State English as a Second Language Learning Standards, and served as an advisor to NYSED on the development of the New York State ESL Achievement Test (NYSESLAT), which is based on the ESL Standards. Dr. Shanahan’s teaching experiences range from elementary students to graduate students in locations as diverse as New York, Western Europe, China, and the Middle East. He was also an appointed member of the Community Education Council of District 3 in New York City’s Department of Education.