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Vocabulary Success: How Elfrieda Hiebert’s Four C’s Can Transform Your Classroom

By: Lauren Gould

Elfrieda Hiebert, or “Freddy” as she’s affectionately called, is an author and researcher who specializes in text complexity and vocabulary acquisition.  In her recent book,  Teaching Words and How they Work: Small Changes for Big Vocabulary Results, Hiebert discusses the four C’s of vocabulary acquisition: Core Reading, Choice Reading, Collections, and Conversations.

"Here are  practices, built around Hiebert’s four C’s, that could help transform vocabulary learning in your classroom."

  1. Core Reading: Hiebert coaches educators to choose texts strategically to highlight specific uses of vocabulary. For example, when deciding on a read aloud, you might pick a fiction text because of its beautiful figurative language or choose a nonfiction text because it introduces important words and concepts for a new topic you are learning. As you read, you might plan to pause and explain some of these phrases or new words to the class, embedding vocabulary acquisition in the authentic act of reading aloud.

  2. Choice Reading: Hiebert reminds us that independent reading supports incidental word learning, or students learning and figuring out the meaning of new words through reading. You might set up your classroom so core reading and choice reading are connected in some way. For example, if you’re reading a realistic fiction book aloud (core reading), you might encourage students to choose from a set of realistic fiction books during choice reading.  To leverage vocabulary building, you can have students make collections of words (see tip three below!) around the plot, character or setting in their independent reading book. Likewise, if you’re studying a nonfiction topic as a class (core reading), you could provide students with a text set on a related topic. To build vocabulary in nonfiction, students benefit from seeing new concepts and words repeated in different contexts. This means if you’re studying a nonfiction topic like octopus, students will have a greater chance to learn new words by reading lots of texts (articles, books, videos) on octopus over the course of the week, rather than reading nonfiction articles on unconnected topics (ie. windmills one day, octopi the next, volcanoes the following).  

  3. Collections: Hiebert encourages students and teachers to collaborate on “collecting words”. This might look like making a word wall with your students, encouraging students to make concept maps with vocabulary words, or inviting partners or groups to collect words on sticky notes or notecards. The students can add to these word collections over the course of the unit. For example, if students are studying the octopus, they might get together with their group and collect words on Monday, and then again on Wednesday, and finally on Friday. With these word collections, students can do the work of sorting, ordering and arranging the words by topic or category–making vocabulary practice feel like play!

  4. Conversation: Hiebert coaches teachers to use conversation to communicate key information about words, including definitions and connections. We believe conversations between students can be a powerful tool to increase vocabulary acquisition too! Students can use their collections of words to create sentences that show the definition of the word. They may play verbal vocabulary games, like choosing a word and describing the definition to their group, having their peers guess the word. Furthermore, when students are sorting, ordering, or arranging words in their collections (tip three), they will need to discuss connections between words in order to arrange them in meaningful ways.

Are you working on vocabulary integration in your classroom? We’d love to hear what you try! Tag us on Instagram @thereadingandwritingproject.

More about Freddy:

Elfrieda Heibert is the founder of TextProject, has received numerous accolades and awards, including being inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame, and she was a recent guest at our weekly Supper Clubs hosted by Lucy Calkins. Interested in learning more? Check out her blog, Frankly Freddy.