Librarians as Vocab Teachers

Following a revelation I had last year regarding serving ELLs and international students at my school comes another, courtesy of my ESL teacher colleagues.  At the beginning of this year, they led a best practices session for faculty in which they emphasized that we all, no matter our disciplines or the language levels of the students we teach, need to be teaching vocabulary. They presented the three tiers of vocabulary development among other resources (mentioned below) and asked for our support in helping all students learn words in the second and third tiers, which become progressively more academic and domain-specific.

As an educator whose lessons can be jargon-heavy and full of words that have meanings specific to the library context (catalog, database, call number, collection) or the research process (authority, operator), this struck a chord. I often explain these terms during the course of an orientation or lesson, but I don’t directly teach them. In the month or so since that in-service day, I have been seeking tools and strategies to help me in my journey toward becoming a library and research process vocabulary teacher.

Maniotes & Cellucci have written in Teacher Librarian about how being a researcher and following an inquiry process leads students to develop domain-specific vocabulary related to an academic discipline or their research topic. However, at the moment I am more focused on the domain-specific vocabulary related to learning to use libraries and do research. I have started my own word bank of Tier 2 and Tier 3 words that appear in my own teaching, are found in places we might take for granted such as NoodleTools and the OPAC, and on guides for international students from academic libraries. I’ve taken a stab at categorizing them as Tier 2 (general academic words) or Tier 3 (library and research specific), tricky since “research words” do cross academic disciplines. Anyway, here’s a sample:

Tier 2:

  • Source
  • Resource
  • Publisher
  • Author
  • Title
  • Subject
  • Original
  • Journal
  • Academic
  • Keyword
  • Topic
  • Process
  • Electronic
  • Purpose
  • Content
  • Copyright

Tier 3:

  • Call number
  • Primary source
  • Scholarly
  • Database
  • Periodical
  • Reference
  • Archive
  • Dissertation
  • Thesis
  • Relevant
  • Collection
  • Accurate
  • Multi-volume
  • Catalog
  • Full text
  • Citation
  • Peer-reviewed

As a new researcher, let alone a new researcher working in their second or third language, these terms are not easily understood or may not make sense out of their previously known context.  Figuring out the appropriate word list for a research unit would depend on the level of the class and the input of the classroom teacher.

My toolbox for direct vocabulary instruction is growing as well.

  • In Vocab Rehab, Marilee Sprenger offers vocabulary instruction techniques that can be used in a class period with limited time. These could be handy during library orientations or one-shot lessons, provided there is opportunity for continued practice and reinforcement.
  • As new words come up, they could be added to a library word wall. Then a few minutes each inquiry session could be dedicated to engaging vocabulary review.
  • The Frayer Model could be used to help students understand the terms represented by the acronymic CRAAP test, for example.
  • Academic Word Finder identifies Tier 2 words for a certain grade level within a text, sometimes with surprising results.

I can’t wait to put some of these ideas to use as the year moves ahead and our ESL classes begin research projects. Building Tier 2 and Tier 3 word lists will be a wonderful opportunity for furthering collaboration with ESL teachers, and will benefit all student researchers too.

Do you do direct library vocabulary instruction? How and when? What words would you add? Any Middle or Upper School librarians with a word wall in the library (who would like to share pictures?)


Maniotes, L., & Cellucci, A. (2017). Doubling up: Authentic vocabulary
development through the inquiry process. Teacher Librarian, 44(3), 16-20.
Retrieved from

Sprenger, M. (2014). Vocab rehab: How do I teach vocabulary effectively with
limited time? Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Further reading:

Bernadowski, C., & Kolencik, P. L. (2010). Research-based reading strategies in
the library for adolescent learners. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Libraries

Lehman, C. (2012). Energize research reading and writing: Fresh strategies to
spark interest, develop independence, and meet key common core standards,
grades 4-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Student Achievement Partners. (n.d.). Selecting and using academic vocabulary in
instruction [Guide document]. Retrieved September 18, 2018, from website:

“When is it due?”…and other thoughts on library vocabulary

Katie’s thought-provoking post on maintaining print subscriptions (dare I say our most popular post ever?) and an email on Monday from a college friend have me doing a last minute complete revamp of my post. Her email:

    “I actually thought of you recently because I had to explain to Es [her toddler] why I still call the library computer system a ‘card catalog’ even though there are no cards involved. Do you do this?”

What elements of “libraryness” are essential to libraries today? I could throw out academic jargon like makerspaces and learning commons, but I’m thinking more concretely about the ways that I interact with my students and teachers on a daily basis. To answer my friend, I call it the catalog, rather than the card catalog. It’s still a catalog of materials and until the day that a physical card catalog makes its way into my life (patience self—it will happen), I get little enough instructional time with students that I’m not concerned with them understanding the history of print-based organizational systems. On those rare days when I’m inclined to forget that I’m growing older and that my cultural touchstones are not those of my students, I remember comments like this one from a freshman who was showing another freshman how to save a document to the school network.

 “Click on the square with the corner cut out.”

save icon

They’ve never used discs, hard or floppy. It’s just an icon to them. What other remnants of traditional libraries am I eliminating from my program? I place two common patron questions up for your consideration.

 “When is it due?”

I like my materials orderly and front-loaded on the shelves, and I like them returned. As to when, however, my general answer is much vaguer. “When you’re finished.” or “By the end of the school year would be great.” I tend to know the projects that students are checking out materials for (there are about 450 students in the Middle and Upper divisions) and when those projects are due. While the official catalog has a two week check out period because we share with the younger division, none of the students ever see a date stamp or a receipt. In my particular case, it’s just me and no assistant, so I choose not to let long check outs bother me. Most of my books get returned, and my loss statistics are in keeping with acceptable standards. Rather than writing overdue slips, I’d rather spend my time focusing on higher-level research tasks and engaging with the students about what they’re reading. If it’s a popular fiction book, I try to frame the conversation to get the student to read the book quickly and return it. “I loved that book! I bet you’re not going to be able to put it down and will have it back Monday.” or “I can’t believe this is in right now. It’s been checked out all year. An 8th grader was just in here yesterday asking about it. As soon as you’re finished, get it back to me so I can get it to her.” No enforcements, just gentle pressure to read, enjoy, and return.

 “What do I owe?”


I don’t know if your school charges late fees, and I’m thinking specifically about independent school libraries in this paragraph. Clearly, as you’ve already deduced from the previous paragraph, my school does not. We do charge for missing books in May, but that’s only a few families each year and it’s coordinated through the Business Office. As I’ve been planning a research trip to the public library for my freshmen, I keep encountering the resistance that they don’t go to the library because it’s “too expensive.” Many have a story along the lines of losing a picture book under the bed as a child, owing “lots” (what is lots to a kindergartner anyway?) of money, and never returning. I’m chipping away at that fallacy with the help of a team of lovely public librarians who couldn’t be more welcoming, and I’m even returning books to the public library for my teens. However, the bad taste from owed fines lingers. I doubt that the money I’d make by tracking late fees would make up for my time and frustration in chasing down students or their impression of the library as a place out for their money.

I was going to tackle circulation statistics here, but I think I’ll save that for next month since that’s often tied into the bigger picture, i.e. $$$. Needless to say, even if I’m dropping two features that my students associate with libraries, they’re ones that indicate negative associations. I want all of my interactions with students to leave them happier and better prepared in their assignments. Chasing them down for materials and money undermines this goal. I’d rather have frequent library users than a perfect library collection.

Finally a plea. Let’s reframe the conversation around Google search versus our own catalog and database search capabilities. Google is a search engine! The company’s business model requires that it produce great results, even when kids type in questions that I find profoundly silly.

Why did the French Revolution fail while the US succeeded according to Locke?”

You and I might want to sit this student down to teach keywords and Boolean operators. In that time, Google is chugging away and offering suggestions, some poor and, surprisingly, some better than I would have expected. When we say things like “our catalog isn’t as smart as Google” or “when using our catalog, be sure to use advanced keyword search,” students are instead hearing “Use Google. You know it. It’s easier. It has everything.” Whenever possible, play up the strengths of your collection, even in cases where it isn’t as easily indexed as general web search, because there are benefits in accuracy and authority that may outweigh findability. Do searches with students and explain as you go. They’re listening. They want libraries to be helpful, and we’ve got to show them that they are.