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If you’ve been keeping up with the educational chat on twitter you’ll know that that the discussion titled, “Every teacher is a literacy teacher” has been tweeted and retweeted by a large portion of the #edchat regulars. The discussion presupposes that literacy is the number one reason that students require tier 2 and tier 3 intervention. These tiers come from the Response to Intervention (RTI) pyramid and are outlined at the Stern Center for Language and Learning’s site. Since tiers 2 and 3 require the most teacher attention, jroberts, the original poster, suggests that every teacher start to consider his or herself a literacy teacher.

The first suggestion on how every teacher can become a literacy teacher is from teacher 333:

I do agree that every teacher is a literacy teacher, but we need to find a better way to teach vocabulary.  Students need to make more connections, especially lasting connections, with the new vocabulary, not just memorizing them.  We preteach vocabulary in all areas, especially in science and social studies, but unless they can make that connection as to what a particular word means to them, the student will forget those words right after a test/quiz is given.

Though he or she never uses the word directly, the suggestion above is replacing the rote memorization of vocabulary and definitions, which without context can easily occupy a vacuum within the student’s mind, with a semiotic approach. Semiotics is the study of the relationship between sign and meaning.

‘Cat’ is a sign. While Webster’s may define ‘cat’ as: 'a carnivorous mammal (Felis catus) long domesticated as a pet and for catching rats and mice’, you’re probably thinking of the fluffy thing that enjoys naps. Semiotics is the bridge between our invented language and the descriptive attributes of real world objects. A cat is not a chat, nor is it a gato but Mr. Whiskers could be described as all three. Semiotically, they’re the same, a sign pointing at a real world feline.

It’d be somewhat hypocritical to try and describe semiotics using only words. The best illustration I can give comes from poster cfjohnson.

I know what you mean. This year at IRA Mary Ellen Vogt talked about this a little and showed something she called called 4 corners vocabulary. It helps the student go beyond memorization by associating more than a “boring acadmic definition.”

Apart from something like this, I struggle with going beyond the standard word wall or flash cards. Is there anything else you have tried?


This poster attached an image from this year’s IRA conference. It’s a four part flashcard that connects the term ‘cumulus cloud’ to an image of a cumulus cloud, the dictionary definition and a sentence using the term in context. Helping connect all of the concepts that surround this:


gives students the ability to recall the word, use it in context, call to mind the image and fully describe the object using words from the definition.

Teacher333 later responds with a technique of his or her own. Though semiotics is never mentioned, it’s clear that he or she is employing some of the same techniques that help students understand and comprehend, instead of learn and repeat.

I do something similar to this, but one of the boxes has the definition of the word in the student’s own words, so this way they “own it”.  I also have them add some color as at times some of my students remember much better with colors associated with things. I also have done a matching memory game, where there might be 3 columns, in different colored index cards; one row has the definition printed on it, one a picture and one the word.  All are facedown, and the student needs to pick one from each column, read the words if there are any, and try to make a match.  You can also do this with only 2 columns, just for the words and definitions, but adding the picture column also further imprints the information.  This has worked not only in science and social studies, but also reading groups, and my students always ask to play this. 

Again, the students are able to make a connection beyond a term and a group of words describing that term. This technique associates image with definition and term and requires students to dig into their newly-formed semiotic connections. This cycle of learning, comprehension and application is vastly preferable for students to understand material rather than rote memorization of term and definition.The chat is ongoing and I encourage you to share your thoughts at

At WriteToLearn we apply the same semiotic concepts that these teachers have outlined. When students come across an unknown term in a reading, the term itself is highlighted. The first time students see the unknown term is in the context of a sentence. Any highlighted terms are given accompanying definitions at the bottom of each page and the terms are often shown in an image on the same page. This supports our overall goal of students understanding and comprehending what they’re learning, allowing them to synthesize instead of summarize.

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