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Strategy: Teaching Vocabulary Rating

by Dr. Kevin Feldman and Dr. Kate Kinsella

Tips for Mixed-Ability Classrooms


One dynamic way to integrate vocabulary with reading-strategy instruction is to use student self-evaluation as a starting point for learning. Knowledge Rating is a strategy for assessing what students already know about a reading topic by having them independently rate how well they know the key vocabulary. This prereading strategy encourages students to think metacognitively about their conceptual background for each word being introduced. First, the teacher reviews the vocabulary to activate prior knowledge and to identify any confusing or unfamiliar words. Based on the vocabulary, students make some preliminary predictions about the text content and organization, guided by the teacher's focusing questions. Students then gather data during subsequent vocabulary instruction and actual reading, and, finally, they monitor and refine their insights after reading.

This strategy helps the teacher get a realistic gauge of students' expressive and receptive vocabulary knowledge—that is, words they actually understand versus words they simply recognize. The teacher is then in a strategic position to prioritize certain words for focused and substantive preteaching. This vocabulary list also signals to students the relative importance of these terms and the likelihood that they will appear in some form of assessment.


  1. Select the words from a reading selection that are most critical to grasping the essential concepts to be learned. List these words on a Vocabulary Knowledge Rating Chart (PDF). (View an example (PDF) of a completed Vocabulary Knowledge Rating Chart.)

  2. Distribute copies of the Vocabulary Knowledge Rating Chart. When students have the list, tell them that they will start thinking about the new reading material by assessing what they already know about the topic.

  3. As you read each word aloud, ask students to rate their word knowledge by checking one of the columns on the chart:
    1 = Don't know anything (haven't seen or heard the word before).
    2 = I have heard or seen this word (not sure what it means).
    3 = I know this word well (can define it and use it in an intelligent "showing" sentence).

  4. Use the ratings for a unified-class discussion. Tally how many students actually know each word (or think they know) and encourage them to share their knowledge. In this way, you will be able to gauge just how much prereading instruction you will need to provide.

  5. Ask focusing questions that help students predict text content and organization based on this word list and thus help students establish a purpose for reading.

  6. During any guided-reading activities, be sure to point out the target vocabulary.

  7. After completing subsequent vocabulary instruction and reading the assigned selection, have students rerate themselves. You may use Vocabulary Knowledge Rating Chart 2 (PDF) for this purpose. (View an example (PDF) of a completed Vocabulary Knowledge Rating Chart 2.) Then refine vocabulary knowledge. Return to the selection, or use reference books, to clarify words that are still problematic.

  8. Let students know that this Knowledge Rating tool is an organizer for study. Any words on the list will be priorities for vocabulary assessment in a subsequent quiz or test. Students should also be held accountable for using these terms in related oral or written work; you can include them in assessment protocols such as writing rubrics.


  1. Pronounce each word as students complete the knowledge-rating process so that decoding is not a problem.

  2. Remind students not to indicate that they "know" a word (Rating 3) if they simply "recognize" a word (Rating 2). Also encourage them not to hesitate to indicate that they do not recognize or understand a word at all (Rating 1). Invite them to be honest, as you plan to use their input to make important decisions about what words you will preteach and discuss.

  3. After students have independently completed the self-assessment process, place them in small groups to share what (if anything) they know about each word. Ask them to identify any words (consider specifying a number, like 3–5) for which they have either some or considerable group knowledge, and to be prepared to share this information with the unified class. Make sure each group's collectively generated definitions and examples are reported separately for each word. There should be at least three different spokespersons. This small group sharing and preparation tends to animate a subsequent unified-class debriefing of their collective understandings, confusion, questions, and predictions about what the author will actually be discussing.

  4. Follow up this assessment and brainstorming process with focused instructional front-loading of terms that are totally unfamiliar, somewhat familiar, or clearly misunderstood.


Blachowicz, C., and Fisher, P. (1996). Teaching Vocabulary in All Classrooms. Merrill/Prentice Hall.