Possible Sentences Vocabulary Instruction

July 18, 2014, The IRIS Center

Deborah Reed, an Associate in Research at Florida State University’s Florida Center for Reading Research, talks to us about the Possible Sentences strategy (time: 7:06).

Questions asked of Deborah Reed in this audio:

  1. Can you discuss the advantages of using this strategy over traditional vocabulary instruction?
  2. Can you talk a little about how Possible Sentences is also a good strategy for students who already have strong, or even advanced, vocabulary skills

Deborah Reed, PhD
Deborah Reed, PhD
Associate in Research
Florida Center for Reading Research
Florida State University

Transcript: Deborah Reed, PhD

Narrator: This interview is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Deborah Reed, an Associate in Research at Florida State University’s Florida Center for Reading Research, talks to us about the Possible Sentences strategy (time: 7:06).

Narrator: The Possible Sentences vocabulary strategy is described in detail in the IRIS Module Secondary Reading Instruction (Part 2): Deepening Middle School Content-Area Learning with Vocabulary and Comprehension Strategies. Dr. Reed, can you discuss the advantages of using this strategy over traditional vocabulary instruction?

Deborah Reed: A common activity that teachers assign with vocabulary learning is to have students use the words in sentences. This can be really challenging for students if they’re very unfamiliar with the words. There’s not a lot that they can say. They can’t show expert use of the word in a context because everything is so new to them. The content is new to them. The word is new to them. So where Possible Sentences differs from that sort of approach to using the word in a sentence is that we’re using a combination of words that we selected as terms that the students are already familiar with, that students have some kind of background knowledge or information about those terms, or have used those terms previously and they’re adding the new terms to that. They’re making a connection with what is known to this new term that is related to it so they can use the support of existing knowledge in forming the sentence. And the sentence is anticipating how this combination of words—the known and the unknown—are going to be used in the passage that they’re about to read. So they’re making a form of a prediction sentence, but they’re predicting how the author is going to use those terms in that text to provide this information. And, again, they have some existing background knowledge about that already to support what they’re doing.

So the students are forming these sentences, and they’re not doing it independently. They can work with partners, they can work in small groups, and they’re not using all of the terms in the lists themselves. Students are assigned to write two to four sentences, and then across the whole class the goal is to use all of the words in the list at least one time. So if certain groups are having a lot of difficulty with the terms, and they’re inclined to only use the words that they’re familiar with, where they have enough background knowledge to really support them in forming a good sentence, then they may come up with two sentences that don’t expand a lot of their knowledge. But then other groups might be a little bit more successful or have other types of background knowledge that they can bring to bear on the activity, and they’ll be forming different sentences. And so as the teacher asks the groups to share out, the students have the benefit of hearing how their classmates have used the sentences, and they get that support across the class. And then, finally, the teacher’s also prepared to fill in with additional sentences where necessary so that even if many of the students in the class had difficulty using some of the words that were unfamiliar to them in sentences, in anticipation of how they might be used in the passage, then the teacher is prepared to provide additional sentences so that all the words in the list have been used at least one time with at least two words per sentence. And the teacher has then, as the expert, additional information to provide so that students know how they’re going to see or how they might be able to anticipate how they’re going to see these words being used in the passage.

So when students haven’t come up with any sentences that use particular words from the list, it’s a good indication to the teacher that they have very limited knowledge about those terms, and so she can use or he can use the sentences that the teacher created to provide additional information to students in preparation for their reading of the text. If we didn’t go through that part of Possible Sentences and have all the groups share out and make sure all of the words on the list have been used at least one time, until students encountered difficulty in reading the text we wouldn’t know that they were having such difficulty with certain new terms, that they couldn’t possibly put two of them together to figure out how they might be used to communicate the information in the text that they’re about to read. So it’s an indication to the teacher to provide additional instruction prior to reading the text that will support them in understanding what they will encounter in the passage.

Narrator: Can you talk a little about how Possible Sentences is also a good strategy for students who already have strong, or even advanced, vocabulary skills?

Deborah Reed: The lower-achieving students may be relying more upon the words that they’re familiar with or the ones that we assume they already have some background knowledge to support them in using them in sentences. But higher-ability students who are having an easier time writing or composing their sentences using at least two of the words from the list can be challenged to create additional sentences or to incorporate more words in their sentences. In fact, some of the higher-achieving students take it as such a challenge to put so many of the words together into one sentence that we usually have to tell them not to try and put all of the words in a single sentence. So we can use it as an opportunity to talk about a well-crafted sentence and how you might need to actually break up some of your sentences to communicate the information in a way that is stated better or that your reader can understand better. So they can compose additional sentences while the students who are struggling are still trying to get through the minimum that they needed to compose for the whole class, before the whole class comes back together and shares.

They can surprise you, and any student, any groups that are showing that they’re more successful with this and they’re having an easier time composing their sentences, you just have them keep going. So you set the minimum sentences that they need to compose, the two to four, and if they’re doing well they just keep going.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to this IRIS Center interview. For more information about the IRIS Center and its resources, visit us at www.iriscenter.com [https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/].

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