Vocabulary Quiz on Friday? WHY?

Sometimes I think too deeply. My blogging goal this year was to write a series of practical posts—things teachers can use tomorrow to make their classrooms better. Today’s post was supposed to be about strategies for teaching vocabulary—you know, one of those lists “Five Ways to Introduce New Vocabulary Words” or “Eight Activities to Promote Deeper Understanding.”  Those will come, just not today.

Today, I’m thinking about WHY we teach vocabulary. I don’t have an easy answer.  What’s true for me in a remedial reading class is not going to be true for the physics teacher down the hall or the social studies teacher upstairs. It’s probably not even the same WHY as the reading teacher next door.


We watched the short form of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” Ted Talk in a faculty meeting this week. Each time I’ve seen it a school/district meeting (twice) or heard it referenced in trainings (three or four times), the message has been to focus on WHY we are teachers.  What was it that brought us to the profession in the first place? WHY do we do what we do?

I get that. Teachers need inspiration. We face some tough challenges every day and the negativity can quickly eclipse the enthusiasm and desire to make a difference we felt when we walked into the space that would become our first classroom. Reminding us to go back to that place, that idea, that feeling that’s hard to put into words—our WHY—is good for our spirits.

I don’t think, though, that’s the real lesson we should take from Sinek’s talk. It’s not about us. It’s about the students. The outer circle in Sinek’s golden circle is the What?—what is done for the consumer that makes the consumer’s life better (and ultimately brings success to the company)—Apple sells better/different computers, Southwest offers discounted flights. Think about that in the classroom; if we’re the “company” and the students are the “consumers,” is the WHY we need to be thinking about really our own personal motivation for becoming a teacher? Is that the WHY that’s going to drive them to “buy” what we’re selling? And what are we selling?

The missing link for our students is the WHY behind our content, our “product.” How many times have you been asked, “Why do we need to know this?” “When are we ever going to use this?”  If we don’t clearly know the answers to those questions, maybe we don’t need to be teaching whatever it is that prompted those questions. Think about the golden circle for a minute in terms of lesson planning: What do we teach? The standards. How? With a certain text or strategy.  It’s that inner circle—the WHY?—that’s the most important part.

This WHY—the reason we teach certain vocabulary words—doesn’t have to be a deep, philosophical truth. I came across an article by Kevin Flanigan and Scott Greenwood (professors at West Chester University when they wrote it), that lists a few purposes some teachers may have for teaching vocabulary; they say we may want our students to:

  • gain a basic understanding of a word or concept
  • know the defining features of a concept and compare/contrast it with another concept (e.g., what is or is not a reptile, compared to amphibians)
  • extend their knowledge of a word/concept with which they are already acquainted

These purposes definitely qualify as a WHY.  If your WHY is really just to help students gain a basic understanding, then the question becomes whether or not it is worth the time to spend a class period defining words, homework time studying the words,  and then another 20 minutes assessing understanding. But I’m getting ahead of myself now; we’ll talk about strategies later.

So, back to my reason for this post: WHY do you teach the vocabulary words you’re teaching?  Can you sell that list of words in Chapter 11 to your students? Will completing the matching section on the test next Friday improve the lives of your students?  If we can get back to the WHY—why these words matter to us as historians, scientists, readers—maybe we can convince our students to buy their importance rather than memorizing the definitions on the bus ride to school the morning of the test, only to forget them after lunch.

Here’s the part of this post I want you to take away and use to make your classroom better this week—as you introduce new vocabulary think about your WHY. Can you explain why you’re teaching these words, in a way that will convince students its worth their time to learn them?

If Sinek’s examples hold true in our world, too, then, once we start letting these WHYs guide our teaching, our students will buy into our lessons. I received another reminder of this theory in my email this week—a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” In other words, if our students have a WHY to learn, they will do the work.


Flanigan, K., & Greenwood, S. C. (2007). Effective content vocabulary instruction in the middle: matching students, purposes, words, and strategies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy51(3), 226+.

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