It’s time to cull our vocabulary lists.

When’s the last time you really looked at the vocabulary words that you teach and asked yourself if all these words were essential for students to know for life? Or are you forcefed a vocabulary program by your district, but deep down you know some of the words aren’t relevant to students now and will likely never be?

The sad truth is that so many vocab programs and workbooks out there are filled with words that simply aren’t used often in our world. Or we as teachers rely on textbooks to point out words that “should” be taught (which at least they’re within the context of learning rather than randomly selected like many vocabulary programs.)

I’m fortunate enough to have the freedom when selecting vocabulary words, so a few years ago I eschewed the vocab workbooks our district owned and selected words from the texts that we read. But since I’m revamping the junior level English curriculum this summer, it’s also time to re-examine the vocabulary. We’ll be reading new texts and leaving others behind, so I want to make sure that the words we’re focusing on this year in our vocabulary instruction are also words relevant to our texts.

But how to decide which words to use? Simply choosing long words isn’t the answer, nor can we teach students every arcane word there may be in a text.

Here are some steps I’ve been following:

  1. I limit my number to 12 words a month that students are responsible for demonstrating mastery. When I’m creating an initial list, I’m looking for words that not only appear in texts we’ll be reading, but for words that could also be used in other contexts.
  2. Checking college bound vocabulary lists. There are often important words on their lists that connect well with the content you’re teaching.
  3. Consider words that have multiple meanings. For example, “pedestrian” or “novel” or “objective.” Students likely know the first meaning, but the second meanings of these words are also extremely important–not only for students to use in their own writing, but when they’re reading, they need to know by context which meaning to use.
  4. Examine any important affixes that could be linked to the word. When I teach “circumvent,” I ask students what shape “circum” connects with. Of course, they answer “circle.” “So,” I continue, “when we want to circumvent someone or something, we go around it.” This emphasizes that “circum” is an affix that can be used in words outside the math classroom, too.
  5. This summer, I’ve started using the Google Ngram Viewer. This is a handy tool that shows the frequency of a word from 1800-2008. By checking words with the Ngram Viewer, I have another way to know whether this is a word students are likely to encounter in the future.

Examining some of the texts I potentially will have students read in our “truth” unit–a study of fake news, biased news, and unreliable narrators–I came across the word “polarization.” This is a word that

  • could be connected to both this context but also to science.
  • contains affixes that could be potentially addressed
  • is important to the context and understanding of our unit

With the Ngram chart, I can see that “polarization” has grown in frequency and currently scores a .0005, which is on the higher end of the words on my curriculum vocab list (for comparison, “dog” ranks .004, “investigate” ranks .001, and “complication” scores a .0004).

(More on how to use the Google Ngram Viewer here.)

Now take a look at “phototropic,” which is actually a word in the freshman vocab workbooks in our district.

A score of .000003! For whatever reason, the word achieved peak popularity in the 1930s (I’m surmising this could be connected to science text of the time), but even then the peak score was .00001–still not an extraordinarily high score. Granted, the affixes in this word may have some benefit in teaching, but I question whether this word is appropriate for a freshman vocabulary study. Does it connect with their texts? No. Can it be used in multiple contexts? Not that I’m aware of. Is the word used frequently and/or growing in frequency? Definitely not.

The Ngram Viewer is only a tool. It shouldn’t be the sole determinant of whether a word should be used or eschewed.

However, the Ngram Viewer can be a great tool for determining which words make the final cut on your vocab list. Or if you’re forced by your district to teach a set list of words, the tool can provide insight on which words to make “must learn” words and which words are of secondary importance.

Plus, creating levels of words within your lists can provide a way to differentiate. Students who show mastery your coreĀ  words can then focus their learning on a second tier of words–words that maybe aren’t as frequently used but still beneficial to know, such as enervating, ostentatious, or supercilious.