Ever ask a group of students the difference between a regular word and a vocabulary word? They would probably respond by telling you that vocabulary words are words that they are supposed to learn in school, unfamiliar words that they encounter in newspapers and novels, or words that show up in workbooks with titles like "100 Vocabulary Words You Need to Know by Graduation."

There is something alienating about the word vocabulary and even its premise. By calling a word "a vocabulary word" it is implied that this is a word that someone else has decided you should learn. Whether that somebody is ETS, a text book company, or your third period English teacher — someone else is determining what words are considered vocabulary words.

When middle school teacher Martha Rapp Ruddell was struggling to explain heretofore during a weekly vocabulary review and was met with a "Why do we have to learn these words anyway?" student response, she decided to hand over the vocabulary reins to her students. Instead of using a pre-selected set of spelling and vocabulary words for weekly review, she decided to put her students in charge of choosing each week's set of vocabulary words.

Ruddell gave students the freedom to find vocabulary words from "anywhere they wanted." The only guideline they had to follow was to find words that they thought would be "good words for the class to learn." They were encouraged to choose words that they encountered out of the classroom – on television, on billboards, in song lyrics, or overheard in conversations. The following day each student was expected to write his or her word on the board, to explain its meaning, and to explain why the rest of the class should learn that word too.

The Study*

The success of Ruddell's spontaneous assignment to have students create their own vocabulary lists inspired her and a colleague, Brenda A. Shearer, to study this process more systematically. In 1998 Ruddell and Shearer introduced VSS (Vocabulary Self-Selection) to three classes of middle school students who had been identified as "at risk" through a reading intervention program.

The study followed the same model as Ruddell had used in her classroom: each student (and the teacher) nominated and argued for one word for the weekly class vocabulary list. At the end of the week, the class was tested on the words' spellings, meanings, and usage.

When Ruddell and Shearer compared the students' VSS quiz results with their prior weekly quiz results, they found that students performed significantly higher on VSS word lists then on the traditional curriculum lists. Ruddell and Shearer attributed this achievement boost to the level of engagement students had invested in choosing their words and to the social interaction in the classroom during the process of nominating and advocating for particular words to be included on the official class vocabulary list.

Using VocabGrabber as a Vocabulary Aid

For teachers worrying about how they could manage to fit this style of vocabulary study into their already packed curriculum, they could limit student word selection to the words in a given text they are reading at home or in class.

VocabGrabber can be a great tool for aiding students in this task. For example, instead of distributing a commercially produced vocabulary list for the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter, have students individually VocabGrab a digital form of the chapter and have them choose their own words. And, if you are worried that they may choose words that are too obscure or basic, then have them use the "Vocabulary" filter that tailors the list to words that are considered more typical SAT-caliber vocabulary words. Clicking on "Vocabulary" will weed out words like beetle-browed and burdock, and leave students with a rich array of words to choose from including allot, symbolize, congregate and portal.

Can we trust students to make good word choices?

It's often hard for teachers to give up control.  For teachers hesitant to give up control over choosing their students' vocabulary words this study's results should be comforting. Even the students in this study sample, middle school students identified as "at risk," knew a good vocabulary word when they spotted it. Words like sovereignty, mundane, radiation, and embezzle peppered their lists – words they had encountered in other classes, in movies, in magazines, and in conversation.

Many vocabulary instruction experts like Isabel Beck have identified particular principles to follow when selecting words to explicitly teach in the classroom. These Tier Two words tend to be more useful words that students will need to master to communicate in academic contexts. While Beck's message is important, there is something to be said for allowing students the opportunity to contribute to the word choice process. Ruddell and Shearer concluded that "VSS word lists demonstrate that when given the opportunity to select their words, students will consistently choose important, challenging, interesting words to learn." It seems that even students with a limited vocabulary may still have an innate sense about how to identify "good" vocabulary words.

More importantly, vocabulary self-selection sets an important precedent in students' lives. It sends the message that their own curiosity and confusion should lead them to investigate words' meanings. When they graduate from high school, they will probably never have a vocabulary list handed to them ever again. A college professor or employer will expect that if they encounter an unfamiliar word in a reading or in the workplace, then they will take the initiative to find out its meaning independently.

*Ruddell, M.R., & Shearer, B.A. (1999, December). The vocabulary self-selection strategy (VSS) in a middle school reading intervention program. Paper presented at the 49th annual meeting of the National Reading Conference, Orlando, FL.