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Teaching Rare Words

Exposure to rare words and opportunities to use rare words increases the likelihood that children will develop larger vocabularies. Teaching rare words is supported by verbal explanation and physical cues.

Rare WordsResearch supports development of vocabulary through exposure and opportunity to use rare words (Weizman & Snow, 2002).  Rare words refer to words that children are not likely to know at a particular age. For example, for a preschooler, adjectives like ‘delectable’ or actions like ‘wriggling’ are rare words. For a teacher of children who are DHH, instruction in rare words goes beyond teaching words that children do not know. Teaching rare words is a purposeful attempt at targeting words above a child’s language level. Children who have the chance to hear/see rare words and use them are more likely to develop larger vocabularies.

How do I teach rare words?

Verbal explanations and physical cues (ex. pictures, objects, and demonstrations) can enhance learning of rare words. Storybook reading time is a valuable opportunity to target rare words because teachers can point to pictures or illustrations to explain rare words (Hamilton & Schwanenflugel, 2011).

For young children, The Fancy Nancy series, by Jane O’Connor (recommended for ages 4-7, but it is NEVER too early to start the habit of using rare words) can be a great resource.  This series’ premise is that Nancy’s penchant for using “fancy” words is just an endearing part of her quirkiness. Whether introducing the word plume  for feather” or stupendous as a fancy word for great, Nancy stories present scores of rare words in well-supported pictorial contexts.

Even a children’s book with limited text can be a great source of rare words, or those words considered Tier Two words (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002; Hutton, 2008).  Tier Two words are those that are more frequently occurring in adult conversations and literature, and strongly impact students’ ability to read with comprehension.

For example, Nancy Shaw’s clever “Sheep” series has limited text, although many Tier Two words find their way into the delightful rhyme.  In the classic Sheep in a Jeep, (Shaw, 1986) can be found such words as steep and leap; tug and shrug; and yelp, grunt and heap!  In other “Sheep” books, the detailed illustrations by Margot Apple provide the impetus for exposing the children to rare words or Tier Two words, even if they do not appear in print.  Teachers, clinicians and parents are only limited by the effort they make to search out interesting trade books that can open the door to vocabulary expansion.

But not just during Storybook Reading . . .

Research studies that support exposure to rare words to increase children’s vocabularies point to conversations as even more effective than storybook reading (Beals & Tabors, 1993). Teachers can intentionally expose children to rare words and increase opportunities to rare words during conversations in the same manner as during storybook reading. However, extended talk (Hoff & Naigles, 2002), where the teacher uses the words in a way that gives the child a clue as to the meaning, is important. See examples below.

Example #1

CHILD: You tired?

TEACHER: Yes! I am totally exhausted after running around on the playground

Example #2

TEACHER: Do you remember what you saw at the dairy farm?

CHILD: Oh yeah, the cows. We milked the cows.

TEACHER: Did the cows have horns?

CHILD: No, they were just black and white

TEACHER: An ox looks like a cow with bigger horns. Sometimes they work in pairs to pull a cart or a wagon.

FAQ: Why are rare words important? How can I teach rare words? How will I identify Tier Two words?


Beals, D. & Tabors, P.O. (Mar, 1993). Arboretum, bureaucratic, and carbohydrates: Preschoolers’ exposure to rare vocabulary at home. Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, New Orleans, LA.  To examine relationships between children's exposure to and use of new or rare words during preschool years and their later performance on vocabulary-related measures, this study explored frequencies of rare word use in different conversational settings. The study also tracked the use of rare words by mothers and children and related those results to vocabulary test scores and the ability to give definitions of a set of common words when the children were 5 years old. Children eligible for Head Start programs were recruited for the study. Eighty-four low-income families were visited at home once each year when the children were 3 and 4 years old. During these visits each mother performed a variety of tasks with her child. These tasks were reading two books to her child (one provided by the researcher and one familiar to the child); eliciting a report from the child of an interesting recent event; and playing with toys provided by the researcher. All events were tape recorded. Each mother was also asked to record a mealtime conversation. Analysis of the transcribed recordings indicated that the largest proportion of rare words were used during the reading of the book familiar to the child and during everyday conversation at mealtimes. However, no correlation was found between the use of rare words in book readings and later vocabulary measures.

Beck, I., McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2002). Choosing Words to Teach, excerpted from Bringing Words to Life.  The teacher’s edition for a fourth-grade anthology suggests teaching the following words before inviting students to read an excerpt from Charlotte’s Web (White, 1952): comfort, cunning, endure, friendless, frolic, lonely, soaked, and stealthily. Why do you think these words were selected? One obvious reason for selecting words to teach is that students do not know the words. Although cunning, endure, frolic, and stealthily are probably unfamiliar to most fourth graders, comfort, friendless, lonely, and soaked are probably not. Familiarity does not seem to be the principle used to make the selection. What about importance or usefulness? Are the selected words useful for writing or talking? Would the words be important to know because they appear in other texts with a high degree of frequency? Some—but not all—of the words might be considered useful or important. Thus, the question remains: Why were the words selected? The purpose of this chapter is to consider what principles might be used for selecting words to teach.

Hamilton, C. & Schwanenflugel, P.  (2011)  PAVEd for Success:  Building vocabulary and language development in young learners.  Baltimore:  Brookes Publishing.  How can early childhood educators give young children a strong foundation in emergent literacy skills and a heasd start in social studies and science? The secrets are in PAVEd for Success, a road map to school readiness for preschool and kindergarten students.

Hutton, T.L. (2008). Three tiers of vocabulary and education.  Most children begin first grade with about 6,000 words of spoken vocabulary. They will learn 3,000 more words per year through third grade. However, not all words have equal importance in language instruction. So, how do we know which words we need to teach? We consider three types of vocabulary words—three tiers of vocabulary—for teaching and assessing word knowledge. A word's frequency of use, complexity, and meaning determines into which tier it will fall. Those with mature vocabularies and age-appropriate literacy skills understand and use words from all three tiers. This handout discusses the three tiers of vocabulary, Tier 1—Basic Vocabulary, Tier 2—High Frequency/Multiple Meaning, and Tier 3—Subject Related.

O’Connor, J.  (2008). Fancy Nancy.  New York:  Harper Collins.  Fancy Nancy is a wild, young girl with a larger than life personality, who adores all things fancy. She always dresses extravagantly, wearing boas, tutus, ruby slippers, fairy wings, and fuzzy slippers. Nancy loves using big fancy words such as "iridescent", "ecstatic", and "extraordinary" and anything in French.

Shaw, N.  (1986). Sheep in a Jeep.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.  Using very few words (sheep, jeep, thud, mud, heap, cheap), a tableau unfolds in which five silly yet distinctive sheep futilely attempt to ride in their jeep. Amusing details-such as the tattoos on the pigs' arms-abound in the pictures.

Snow, C.E. & Beals, D.E. (2006). Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. Participation in dinner table conversations offers children opportunities to acquire vocabulary, practice producing and understanding stories and explanations, acquire general knowledge, and learn how to talk in culturally appropriate ways.

Weizman, Z.O. & Snow, C.E. (2002).  Lexical input as related to children’s vocabulary acquisition: Effects of sophisticated exposure and support for meaning.  A corpus of nearly 150,000 maternal word-tokens used by 53 low-income mothers in 263 mother-child conversations in 5 settings (e.g., play, mealtime, and book readings) was studied. Ninety-nine percent of maternal lexical input consisted of the 3,000 most frequent words. Children's vocabulary performance in kindergarten and later in 2nd grade related more to the occurrence of sophisticated lexical items than to quantity of lexical input overall. Density of sophisticated words heard and the density with which such words were embedded in helpful or instructive interactions, at age 5 at home, independently predicted over a third of the variance in children's vocabulary performance in both kindergarten and 2nd grade. These two variables, with controls for maternal education, child nonverbal IQ, and amount of child's talk produced during the interactive settings, at age 5, predicted 50% of the variance in children's 2nd-grade vocabulary.