Skip to main content

The Clarifying Routine: Elaborating Vocabulary Instruction

The more a new vocabulary word is associated with ideas from students’ own experience, the more likely the word will become well ‘networked’ and a permanent part of memory. Making these links involves elaborating definitions of new terms. This article offers teachers several ways to facilitate elaboration.

When you think of vocabulary, there is a good chance that you think of long lists of words from social studies or science textbooks, spelling word lists, or even the humongous lists of terms to study for college entrance exams. Zillions of flash cards also may come to mind. No doubt you share the common childhood experience of having to “go look up the words in a dictionary, write the definition, and then write a sentence using the term” — but how much of that vocabulary do you remember now? Do you remember how you could rote copy the definition of a term as part of a homework assignment, but have no real idea what the definition meant and still get an ‘A’ on the assignment?

Perhaps the least effective way to study vocabulary is the “look and remember” technique. Here, students typically stare at the term and definition, apparently trying to activate photographic memory they wish they had. Another common study technique is ‘rote verbal rehearsal’ — saying the word over and over again, usually in the exact language and format from which the definition originally came.

Ross Perot, with his unique use of the English language, said it best — “That dog don’t hunt!” In other words, many of the traditional techniques teachers and students use to learn vocabulary does not work because most students, not just those with learning problems, rarely remember the meanings of new terms beyond the test. This raises a very disconcerting question: If students don’t remember the definitions of new terms after the test, why bother requiring them to memorize these definitions in the first place since it seems to be a waste of time?

We know from research that new terms must be defined using language and examples which are already familiar to students, and that the more ideas from background knowledge with which the student can associate the new term, the more likely it will become a well-networked and permanent part of memory. There are a variety of tactics and strategies that can be mediated by the teacher to help students understand and remember new terms as well as the significance of important names, events, places, or processes. All of these tactics involve facilitating elaboration in various ways.

Elaborating definitions of new terms

There are several elaboration techniques that appear to be particularly powerful facilitators of comprehension and memory of new terms. These are briefly described below.

Elaboration technique #1:

Teach new terms in context of a meaningful subject-matter lesson, and facilitate student discussion that centers on use of the new term. At some point, students should use the new term themselves in a sentence within the context of discussing broader topics.

The traditional practice of having students look up definitions and then write sentences using the new terms likely stems from the idea that students must think of the term and create a context for which it might be appropriately used. While composing written sentences clearly is an important elaboration technique for the learner, essential to also include in the learning process is learning about the term within an overall context so that relational understanding can develop.

Although providing opportunities for students to elaborate about new terms requires a significant portion of class time, it is clearly a worthwhile instructional practice. The problem is, students are often expected to memorize the definitions of far more terms than there is time in class to elaborate upon. To provide meaningful opportunities for elaboration, we need to teach considerably fewer terms, and invest considerable more time in developing deep knowledge structures of those that are really essential for students to know. This means that students are typically expected to memorize far too many terms each week. The adage ‘less is more — depth’ is more’ is very true in this context.

Another implication of this first elaboration technique is that the common practice (often associated with language arts classes) of having students attempt to learn long lists of un-associated words without the benefit of learning them within some meaningful context is largely a waste of the teacher’s and student’s time. Figure 1 provides a set of guidelines for how to be more selective about deciding which terms students should be taught.

Figure 1

Guidelines for selecting to-be-learned vocabulary
Do… Avoid…
Less is more — depth is more. Teach fewer vocabulary terms, but teach them in a manner that results in deep understandings of each term. Teaching or assigning words from textbooks just because they are highlighted in some way (italicized, bold face print, etc.).
Teach terms that are central to the unit or theme of study. These are terms that are so important that if the student does not understand them, s/he likely will have difficulty understanding the remainder of the unit. Teaching or assigning words just because they appear in a list at the end of a text chapter.
Teach terms that address key concepts or ideas. While a text chapter may contain 15-20 vocabulary terms, there may be only 4 or 5 that address critical concepts in the chapter — sometimes only 1 or 2!). Teaching or assigning words that will have little utility once the student has passed the test.
Teach terms that will be used repeatedly throughout the semester. These are foundational concepts upon which a great deal of information will be built on over a long-term basis. Assigning words the teacher cannot define.
  Assigning large quantities of words.
  Assigning words that students will rarely encounter again.

Elaboration technique #2:

Facilitate paraphrasing of new term’s definitions so that students can identify the core idea associated with the overall meaning of the term, as well as distinguish the new term’s critical features. If you were to dissect the semantic structure of a new term, you would find that its definition actually has two main components: (i) The core idea of the new term is like its ‘gist’ or main idea; and (ii) critical features of the definition are specific bits of information in the definition that clarify the broader, more general core idea. This is analogous to paraphrasing main ideas of paragraphs when reading in which the reader says what the overall paragraph was about (main idea) and indicates important details in the paragraph. With new terms, the goal is to paraphrase the core idea of the term and identify specific critical-to-remember details that clarify the core idea.

Elaboration technique #3:

Make background knowledge connections to the new term. While teaching the new term in context of a subject-matter lesson is a critical instructional technique, an equally important elaboration technique is for students to relate the term to something in which the students are already familiar. There is a wide array of methods by which students can formulate knowledge connections. For example, they can identify how the term is related to previous subject-matter they have learned, they can identify something from their personal life experiences the term reminds them of, they can create metaphors or similes for the term, or they can say how the term relates to understanding or solving some form of real-life problem. An essential part of this elaboration process is having the students explain the connection. For example, the students should not only say what personal experience the term makes them think of, but also why it reminds them of it.

Elaboration technique #4:

Identify examples/applications as well as non-examples/non-applications related to the new term’s meaning. Comprehension is greatly enhanced if the learner can accurately identify examples of the term or ways the new term can be appropriately applied within the context of discussing another context. For example, the term ‘peaceful resistance’ might be used when describing Martin Luther King’s approach to solving racial discrimination problems.

You will likely find that students’ comprehension of new terms becomes considerably more focused and refined if they can also identify examples of what the term is not about or inappropriate applications of the term’s use. Having the student discuss of what the term is not an example, or other concept with which someone should not confuse it, can facilitate this.

Elaboration technique #5:

Create multiple formats for which students can elaborate on the meaning of new terms. Many teachers will utilize all of the above elaboration processes within the context of a class discussion, and yet some students still do not seem to ‘get it.’ This is because the manner in which elaboration was facilitated was all ‘lip-ear’, or verbal or listening, forms of instruction. Writing elaborations, even for those where scripting is a laborious process, creates an opportunity for greater reflection on the term’s meaning. Other forms of elaboration involve use acting out via role-play the meanings of some terms or creating mnemonic pictures or stories that capture the essence of a new term’s meaning.

The Clarifying Routine focuses on ways each of the above forms of elaboration can be facilitated. The teachers uses an instructional tool, called a Clarifying Table, to facilitate these kinds of thinking behaviors. Figure 2 illustrates a Clarifying Table that was used in the context of an integrated unit with a “Titanic” theme.

Click here to view Figure 2 Clarifying Table

While some teachers use the Clarifying Table to pre-teach vocabulary terms students will encounter in an up-coming lesson, I have been most successful using it as a way to ‘anchor’ the meanings of terms whose meanings were first explored within the context of a subject-matter lesson. To put this in perspective, I might briefly introduce the meaning of new terms at the beginning of a lesson, and then more thoroughly explore their meanings during the subject-matter lesson, and finally, use the Clarifying Table to solidify understanding of those terms that are really essential for students to learn.

Forms of ‘DO’ instruction

The teacher can use the Cue-Do-Review sequence when applying the Routine. I have found that the ‘Do’ component of this routine can be very effectively applied in four basic ways (see Figure 3) adapted from Anita Archer’s characterization of scaffolded instruction: ‘I do it’ (model), ‘We do it’ (provide guided practice), and ‘You do it’ (independent practice). I usually include a ‘Yall do it’ phase before asking students to independently create Clarifying Tables.

Click here to view Figure 3 Cue-do-Review sequence

‘I do it’ instruction

The purpose of the first phase of ‘Do’ instruction is to provide students with a precise model of a well-constructed Clarifying Table depicting information related to an essential new term students need to learn. The first time students are introduced to Clarifying Tables, I usually provide them with one that I have completely constructed ahead of time, and just walk them through it in much the same manner as I might explain the information depicted on a web or other pre-constructed graphic organizer. After explaining the information depicted on the Clarifying Table, I usually ask students what they like about the table and how well it helps them understand the meaning of a new term. I typically do this twice before moving to the next phase, ‘We do it.’

‘We do it’ instruction

During ‘We do it’ instruction, I am co-constructing Clarifying Tables with students. Although I may have constructed one for a new term prior to class as part of my planning process, so my instruction will go smoothly, I don’t show students a completed version. Rather, I first teach the meaning of the new term in the context of a subject-matter lesson, and then provide students with blank copies of a Clarifying Table. Together, we (students and I), decide what ideas should be noted on the form. Thus, the whole class decides on what to note as the “Core Idea” for the new term, what to list as “Clarifiers,” “Knowledge Connections,” and so forth.

‘We do it’ forms of instruction continue through the year, thus I never really stop co-constructing Clarifying Tables with students. As students become more confident and competent at constructing these tables, however, my role tends to shift from being the person who frequently cues students what to do and helps them actually phrase ideas to note on the form to a role that is much more like a “guide-on-the-side.”

‘Yall do it’ instruction

Once it becomes evident to me that most students understand purpose of the Clarifying Table and can construct them with little assistance from me, I begin incorporating cooperative learning activities where students work in pairs or small teams to construct Clarifying Tables without my assistance. While it varies depending of the nature of the class, I usually begin incorporating ‘Yall do it’ activities after we, as a class, have constructed between five and ten Clarifying Tables. Naturally, the more familiar students are with the meaning of the new term, the easier it is for them to construct a Clarifying Table. Thus it is very important that I do a great job teaching the new term’s meaning in the context of my subject-matter lesson before I ask students to work together to construct a Clarifying Table. ‘Yall do it’ activities allows students to have some support, but the nature of the support comes from peers rather than the teacher.

‘You do it’ instruction

The Clarifying Table is a versatile tool that teachers can use to teach the meanings for new terms, and students can use as a strategy for independently studying new terms. ‘You do it’ activities are designed to enable students to perform this task without assistance from others. An example would be requiring students to construct Clarifying Tables for five terms in lieu of requiring them to complete traditional study guides or answer the end-of-chapter textbook questions.

Assignments that require students to independently construct Clarifying Tables only occur, however, after a sufficient amount of scaffolded instruction has previously occurred. A very common mistake is to jump from providing an initial model (I do it) to requiring students to independently do it themselves (You do it) without the intermediate guided practice mediated by the teacher and by peers.

Integrating the clarifying routine with other learning strategies

Theresa Farmer (Oak Mountain Intermediate School, Birmingham, AL) is a teacher who worked with me to validate the Routine during the research phase of its development. One of the ways she used it was to assign reading passages, and have students take notes on the Clarifying Table about the main ideas and details of the text in the tradition of the Paraphrasing Strategy. She also incorporated it as a notetaking tool that students used during the context of exploring a subject-matter lesson. Theresa also used the Clarifying Table as a form of ‘think sheet’ students used to plan their writing. Students would first complete a Clarifying Table about their topic, and then, when writing their essays, use the completed Clarifying Tables as a guide for organizing their ideas and ensuring they discussed meaningful information in their social studies and literature-related writing assignments.

Clarifying Tables are designed to facilitate the development of deep knowledge structures or in-depth and thorough understanding of terms. The LINCS strategy, on the other hand, is designed to create a mechanism for ready recall of definitions so that test-performance increases substantially. Used together, they can form a powerful synergy to improve learning performance.

Almost always, there is room at the bottom of the “Knowledge Connections” section of the Clarifying Table to note a LINCing Story or picture. Thus, teachers who have been using LINCS need not discontinue its use in lieu of the Clarifying Routine. Both work well together.

In sum, the Clarifying Routine can be used to help students develop in depth understanding of key terms associated with a unit of study primarily because it incorporates powerful elaboration tactics. The Clarifying Table is best used after the meanings of new terms have been explored in the context of a subject-matter lesson. The Table can be constructed by the teacher and presented to students as the meaning of a term is explored, it can be co-constructed by the class and teacher, or co-constructed by peers. Eventually, the Clarifying Table can become a powerful substitute for traditional homework assignments as students use them independently. The Clarifying Routine can also be readily used in conjunction with other learning strategies to develop literacy skills, note-taking skills, as well as test-preparation skills.

Note: This article was adapted from The Clarifying Routine written by Ed Ellis and published by Edge Enterprises. The Clarifying Routine is part of a series of books called the Content Enhancement Series developed by associates of the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning.

The Clarifying Routine guidebook focuses on the use of a specialized graphic organizer, called a “Clarifying Table,” that can be used to facilitate understanding of important terms students must learn. The instructional routine is appropriate for use in intermediate, middle school, and high school classes or in remedial or tutoring situations. The guidebook contains black-line masters which may be duplicated for instructional purposes. For information about how to attain this book or staff development training in Content Enhancement techniques, contact Dr. Ed Ellis at [email protected]

Back to Top