Journeys January Newsletter

The Keys to Vocabulary: Word-Specific and Generative Instruction
by Shane Templeton, Foundation Professor Emeritus of Literacy Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno and Journeys Program Consultant

Many teachers feel they are always struggling when it comes to teaching vocabulary. “So many words, so little time!” is a common lament. Added to that pressure is their awareness that teaching vocabulary is critically important, because the vocabulary foundation we build for our students will underlie the ways they see and understand their world and their learning for the rest of their lives. The encouraging news is that the daunting task of vocabulary instruction can be made efficient and effective through:

  • Selecting and teaching the specific words students need to know by the end of the elementary grades
  • Teaching generatively: Exploring and understanding processes of word formation by which meaningful word parts, or morphemes, combine
  • Using knowledge of words and generative processes to develop strategies for independently learning new words in the contexts in which they occur

First, all of those words: Of course there’s not enough time to teach them all directly, so we must choose wisely. A number of researchers and educators have offered valuable guidelines for these choices (for example, Biemiller, 2010; Hiebert, 2005; Templeton & Gehsmann, 2014). To illustrate, let’s see how these guidelines work when applied to selections at the primary and intermediate levels:

  • Primary Level: In the informational text From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons, quite a few new words occur, among them: grain, pistil, stamens, root, nutrition, and pollination. We select grain, root, and nutrition as target vocabulary words – they will receive direct and sustained instruction. We select them because 1) they occur with greater frequency in texts than the other new words and therefore children should be familiar with them; 2) unlike pistil, stamens, and pollination, which occur primarily in science texts, our target words are general academic/Tier 2 words, occurring across several different content domains. Children’s understanding of the target words will need to grow to include the ways these words are used in those different domains. In Social Studies, for example, root is often used to mean the underlying cause of something, and grain may refer to the smallest amount of something in both Social Studies and literary texts. It’s also important to note that the words we did not select for direct and sustained instruction are adequately explained in the selection: Pistil and stamens are labeled in an illustration of the parts of a flower and explained in the text, and pollination is defined and explained well in context.
  • Intermediate Level: In the myth "Theseus and the Minotaur" (Journeys, 2017), some of the new words students encounter are mean-spirited, labyrinth, unfortunate, and resourceful. The teacher may explain mean-spirited quickly—a technique called “fast-mapping” in which a brief definition is provided, supported by the context in which the word occurs (Carey, 1978; Biemiller, 2010). Labyrinth is defined well in context. Unfortunate and resourceful occur with greater frequency in texts and across all content domains, so they warrant direct and sustained instruction. They also provide excellent opportunities to reinforce teachers’ morphological instruction—teaching about prefixes, suffixes, bases, and roots—so their value extends well beyond their specific meanings.

Once target voca­­­bulary words are selected, there are productive and motivating activities and strategies that support word-specific vocabulary instruction (Templeton & Gehsmann, 2014). For example:

  • Engaging Questioning
  • Categorizing/Sorting the words according to different characteristics
  • Word Webs and Concept Maps
  • Venn Diagrams
  • 4-Square Maps
  • Semantic Feature Analyses
  • Antonym/Synonym Lines
  • Vocab-o-Grams
  • Vocabulary Notebooks

Using a variety of these activities ensures you are providing students multiple perspectives through which they may learn, explore, and extend understanding of the target vocabulary words.

Flowing throughout many of these activities and strategies is morphology, the structural bedrock for generative instruction—learning how prefixes, suffixes, and base words combine to form the majority of words in the English language. In "Theseus and the Minotaur," for example, unfortunate is examined to reveal fortunate and the effect that adding the prefix un- has on the meaning of fortunate. The suffix -ate is removed to reveal fortune. Morphology often affords the blending of etymology, or word histories, into instruction. In Roman mythology, Fortuna was the goddess of fortune. Our other example target word in "Theseus and the Minotaur"—resourceful—is examined to reveal the root word source. A resource is a source that may be drawn upon again and again (“again” is the most common meaning of re-), and someone who is resourceful is “full of” the ability to use resources.

In the intermediate grades and beyond, morphology instruction extends to the combination of prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin word roots. For example, students explore how the Latin root struct, meaning “build,” combines with the affixes con-, re-, -ion, -ive, and so forth:


Each word root that is learned generates students’ learning of many, many other words that contain that root. Understanding these processes of word formation teaches students how to look at words more generally—providing the key to unlocking the meaning of literally thousands of words that they will encounter (Templeton, 2011/2012, 2012).

To illustrate the potential of this generative learning, let’s consider how Sophia, a 5th-grader, figures out the meaning of the word decathlon in the following sentence:
Gerry had trained for years before he attempted to compete in the decathlon.

The letters athl remind Sophia of athlete and athletic, and she thinks that the letters dec may represent a Latin root that she has learned, meaning “ten,” as in decade and decimal. When she puts these parts together, she concludes that a decathlon is an athletic competition with ten events. When Sophia reads further, she realizes from the context that this is the correct meaning. She doesn’t need to check the word in the dictionary, only if she wishes to, for example, to find out which ten events are a part of a decathlon.

Perhaps most important, the efficient and effective vocabulary instruction described here can lead to students developing a word consciousness, which educators describe as inspiring a curiosity about and appreciation for words—a powerful foundation for robust vocabulary growth (Stahl & Nagy, 2006). This is the type of sensitivity to words that underlies the deep reading of texts, the awareness and understanding of author’s craft in writing, and the foundation of critical thinking.

Selected References:

  • Biemiller, A. (2010). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill SRA.
  • Carey, S. (1978). The child as word learner. In M. Halle, J. Bresnan, & G. A. Miller (Eds.), Linguistic theory and psychological reality (pp. 264–293). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Hiebert, E. H. (2005). In pursuit of an effective, efficient vocabulary curriculum for elementary students. In E. H. Hiebert & M. L. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (pp. 243–263). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Journeys (2017). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Stahl, S. A., & Nagy, W. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Templeton, S. (2011/2012). Teaching and learning morphology: A reflection on generative vocabulary instruction. Journal of Education, 192 (2/3), 101–107.
  • Templeton, S. (2012). The vocabulary-spelling connection and generative instruction: Orthographic development and morphological knowledge at the intermediate grades and beyond. In J. F. Baumann & E. J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to Practice (2nd ed.) (pp.116–138). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Templeton, S., & Gehsmann, K. (2014). Teaching reading and writing: The developmental approach (Pre-K–8). Boston: Pearson.

Component Spotlight

Instructional Card Kits

It is critical to give students context and visual support as they are learning new vocabulary. Journeys has a variety of instructional cards to support teachers and students in this effort. Available for Grades K–6, Vocabulary in Context Cards—one for every Words to Know/Vocabulary in Context word—feature engaging images and context sentences to support understanding. Vocabulary routines on the back of the cards give students deeper practice.

Language Support Cards, available for Grades K–6, connect to each Journeys Anchor Text to help students build background knowledge and develop vocabulary. The back of each card includes activities to develop high-utility words, academic vocabulary, and oral language.

In addition, the Instructional Card Kit includes the following for Grades K–3: letter, word, picture and sound/spelling cards to support phonics lessons, and high frequency word cards, punctuation cards, and retelling cards.

TIP: On ThinkCentral, Language Support Cards can be found under Teacher Resources. Look for the Differentiated Instruction tab under ELD Resources.

Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge

Technology Tips

Get the Most out of Your Journeys Digital Resources

Have you discovered the online Literacy Centers for Grades K–6? These activities are designed for independent or small-group work and are connected to the Journeys Anchor Text and skills instruction each week. Literacy Centers are divided into the following categories: Comprehension and Fluency, Word Study, and Think and Write.

Centers contain three separate activities, each building in complexity: Get Started!, Reach Higher!, and Challenge Yourself!. Materials lists are included so students can assemble their tools independently before starting.

The myNotebook feature of the Literacy Centers helps students be engaged learners. They can highlight text, make notes, write word lists and definitions, and bookmark pages.

TIP: Group two or three students at one computer or device. This arrangement will increase collaboration as they complete the Literacy Center activity together.

Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge


Q: What reading level are Journeys Teacher Read Alouds?
A: Children can listen to and understand texts written at a higher level than they would be able to read independently. All Journeys Teacher Read Alouds were specifically selected to model fluency, teach listening comprehension, and to expose children to language and texts that are above grade-level, yet understandable and age-appropriate.

Click to Enlarge

Q: In Unit 6, why are other trade books available online?
A: At Grades 3–6, Unit 6 has lessons for two trade books in addition to the print trade book that comes with the program. The purpose is to give teachers the option of differentiating instruction with leveled trade books for small groups. One is a below-level trade book. The other is an above-level trade book. An exception is Grade 6, which has one additional trade book available online.

Q: Where can I find the Channel One News videos available with Journeys?
A: Selected Channel One News videos are tied to grade-level Journeys topics and provide additional research sources and background information. Links to Channel One News videos can be found on ThinkCentral in the grade-level Video Hub.

Click to Enlarge

Q: For Fluency Tests and the "Words Correct Per Minute" rubric on page VI of the Grab-and-Go Assessment Booklet, what is the best way to line up ranges with Journeys units?
A: Journeys program developers recommend the following norms be used per instructional time of administration.

Beginning: Units 1–2
Mid: Units 3–4
End: Units 5–6

Click to Enlarge

Sign up for the Journeys Newsletter!

If this is your first year using the Journeys © 2017 program, then signing up for this newsletter will provide you with timely information each month to help you take full advantage of all the program components and resources!

HMH® and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt® are registered trademarks of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
At Home 
Need Help? 

© Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy
 | Children's Privacy Policy | Student (K-12) Privacy Policy

Follow Us:
Twitter Facebook LinkedIn Pinterest YouTube