Empowering Students With
Word- Learning Strategies:
Teach a Child to Fish
Michael F. Graves, Steven Schneider, Cathy Ringstaff
Teaching students individual words is a worthwhile endeavor, but teaching
them strategies for learning words on their own will give them powerful tools
that they can use forever.
ur subtitle is, of course, an allusion to the
well- known adage “Give a man a fish and you
feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and
you feed him for a lifetime.” We strongly embrace
the latter part of the adage because it suggests that
teaching word- learning strategies will give benefits
beyond those achieved by teaching individual words.
However, we do not mean to denigrate the teaching
of individual words. As a number of vocabulary schol-
ars have concluded, a comprehensive vocabulary pro-
gram should be multifaceted (Baumann & Kame’enui,
2004; Blachowicz, Fisher, Ogle, & Watts- Taffe, 2006;
Graves, 2016; Kame’enui & Baumann, 2012; Stahl &
Nagy, 2006) and include providing students with rich
and varied language experiences (in reading, writing,
and discussion), teaching individual words, teaching
word- learning strategies, and fostering word con-
sciousness (interest and excitement about words).
At the same time, teaching word- learning strat-
egies has some special importance because it pro-
vides students with powerful tools that they can use
to become independent word learners—tools that
they can use for a lifetime, as the adage claims. In
the remainder of this introduction, we consider the
importance of vocabulary, the size of the vocabu-
lary learning task students face, and the challenge
some students face in attaining strong vocabularies.
Following that, we define word- learning strategies,
review previous research on word- learning strate-
gies, and provide evidence for the effectiveness of our
program (which we call Word- Learning Strategies, or
WLS) from several small studies. Finally, in the lon-
gest section of the article, we describe the WLS cur-
riculum, the WLS instruction, and key aspects of our
approach that we believe deserve consideration in
designing any program on word- learning strategies.
There is abundant evidence that having a strong
vocabulary is crucial to success in learning to read
and in school more generally. Vocabulary knowl-
edge is a powerful factor underlying reading profi-
ciency (Baumann, Kame’enui, & Ash, 2003; Beck &
McKeown, 1991; Graves, 2016) and influences both
word recognition and comprehension (Language and
Reading Research Consortium, 2015). Vocabulary is
also a central consideration of major reform efforts
such as the Common Core State Standards (National
Governors Association Center for Best Practices &
Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).
Building a strong vocabulary requires learning a
very large number of words. Although vocabulary
researchers differ on just how many words students
need to learn, our estimate, based on the work of
Anderson and Nagy (1992), Graves (2016), Nagy and
Herman (1987), Snow and Kim (2007), and Stahl and
Nagy (2006), is that average 12th graders have devel-
oped vocabularies of something like 50,000 words
and that students therefore learn about 3,000 to
4,000 words each year.
These estimates are for students whose first
language is English. As is widely recognized, build-
ing a strong vocabulary is particularly challenging
for many English learners (August & Shanahan,
2006; Goldenberg, 2013) and some students from
The Reading Teacher Vol. 71 No. 5 pp. 533–543 doi:10.1002/trtr.1644 © 2017 International Literacy Association
Michael F. Graves is a professor emeritus of literacy
education at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis,
USA; e-mail email@example.com.
Steven Schneider is a senior program director at WestEd,
Redwood City, CA, USA; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cathy Ringstaff is a senior research associate at WestEd,
Redwood City, CA, USA; e-mail email@example.com.