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Using Students’ Self-Selection of Vocabulary to Inform Instruction

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

by Jill Macchiaverna, graduate student

With so many thousands of words in American English alone, the choices are practically limitless when it comes to choosing what vocabulary to teach. Add in the wide range of student knowledge that exists in any classroom and vocabulary instruction can feel incomplete no matter which words are chosen. Research has shown students learn words they have self-selected better than words chosen by instructors or basal readers (Packer, 1970; Peterson, 1974; Noble, 1981) Students’ self-selection combined with word frequency data can help give direction to vocabulary instruction.

  1. Collecting Unknown Words

Have students keep a running log of words they encounter with which they are unfamiliar. Assign a point in the week for them to log their words and the corresponding frequencies into your class copy of the template linked below. Clicking on the link will automatically create a new copy for you. You can make a new copy for each student, or create new tabs for each student in the same file:

(If your students are too young to successfully manage this data entry, you’ll have to modify this activity by entering the terms and looking up the frequencies for them.)

You’ll notice the link for looking up word frequencies is embedded into the spreadsheet:

This link will take you to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) word search feature. As of February 2021, access to the word frequency lookup was free and no user account was necessary, but you may have to create a free account to access the search tool today.

  1. Plotting Word Frequencies to See Levels of Challenge

Plot the word frequencies over time to get an idea of the outer limits of the ranges of your students’ vocabularies (there is one created from the sample data in the template that you can replicate once you have new data). I call the word-frequencies-over-time the students’ Levels of Challenge because it is the range where words start becoming unfamiliar. If you have students who are regularly having to look up Tier 1 words, and students who are mostly only looking up Tier 3 words, their line graphs will look much different. This will help you know which students to put together when you are choosing groups for differentiating explicit vocabulary instruction (Graves, et al., 2013).

  1. Compare Teacher-Selected Vocabulary with Student Levels of Challenge

Create a separate tab to document vocabulary word frequencies. Look up the ones you’re planning to teach in the COCA database. How do the frequencies of the vocabulary words (that you or the authors have chosen) compare to the Levels of Challenge in your class? Is there a wide enough range in the frequencies that the vocabulary words can be divided reasonably among your leveled groups? These are the kinds of observations that can help you choose which words to include in your small groups’ explicit vocabulary instruction. You could even have your small groups present definitions to the class, creating interdependence in a way similar to the jigsaw technique (The Jigsaw Classroom, 2021).


Macchiaverna, J. (2021). Self-selected word frequency data template. Copies available to download at

Corpus of Contemporary American English. (2021). [Help page]. Retrieved on February 18, 2021, from COCA:

Graves, M. F. et al. (2013). Words, words everywhere, but which ones do we teach? The Reading Teacher, 67(5), 333-346. DOI: 10.1002/TRTR.1228

The Jigsaw Classroom. (2021). Overview [web page]. Retrieved on April 19, 2021, from The Jigsaw Classroom:

Read the full action research paper here:

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