Program Foundations

Rare Words: Beyond High-Frequency Words

Current research overwhelmingly indicates that rare words make a difference in overall vocabulary growth and comprehension. Rare words are defined as words that are not likely to be part of a child’s vocabulary in a given grade range.

Unlike high-frequency words, which are based on frequency in printed texts and are words that are generally understood by most students (e.g., arm, box, dog, ball), rare words are much more sophisticated. Knowledge of these vocabulary words is highly correlated with increased reading comprehension. Some examples of rare words used in Level B of Discussions4Learning are implement, bustle, tether, and silhouette.

In Discussions4Learning, the target words for each lesson are chosen explicitly because they are not, in most cases, found on the Dale-Chall list of high-frequency words. Rather, they are chosen because they represent the type of academic and cross-curricular vocabulary that students need to know in order to improve their reading comprehension.

Decontextualized Talk: Beyond the Here and Now

Research indicates that decontextualized talk is related to expressive and receptive vocabulary and reading comprehension. Decontextualized talk refers to conversations that go beyond the here and now and involves distancing oneself from an immediate experience, and making inferences based on prior knowledge that is shared by both parties in a conversation.

In order to accelerate vocabulary development and reading comprehension, each lesson in Discussions4Learning includes opportunities for teachers to ensure that students are engaged in decontextualized talk. Students begin by discussing the immediate context of the image as they start each lesson. They identify what concrete images they see in the fine art image or real-world photograph. They then move beyond the actual visible elements of the image to a more decontextualized conversation based on the image.

For example, in Week 12, Lesson 3 of Level C, students view the fine art image I and the Village by Marc Chagall. They begin by discussing the specific images in the painting, such as a goat’s head, a woman milking another goat, and the people and houses. They then move to decontextualized talk by discussing the fact that the village depicts a rural scene, what makes some of the images abstract, and how the abstract images in Chagall’s work can evoke the feeling of a dream. Students also discuss the nostalgia that the artist has conveyed for his hometown, and what types of memories evoke nostalgia.

Scaffolding: Developing High-level, Academic Vocabulary

Semantic scaffolding has been shown to increase comprehension of vocabulary. Semantic scaffolding, particularly of rare words, contributes to improving students’ short-term vocabulary and long-term reading comprehension.

The scripted lessons in Discussions4Learning provide scaffolding for new and previously learned vocabulary. The lessons encourage students to listen carefully and to repeat new vocabulary in context, while encouraging them to figure out the meaning of new words on their own by using semantic (meaning) and syntactic (structural) contexts.


For example, in Level B, Week 2, Lesson 3, students are introduced to an ancient Egyptian wooden sculpture of a funeral procession. The carefully developed script provides precise scaffolding to help students acquire the meaning of new and challenging academic vocabulary.

“These people are walking in a very special line, as if they were in a parade. This sculpture shows people in a procession. Who can say that? Does anyone know what a procession is? Allow wait time. When people walk in a procession, they are walking in a very special line. Raise your hand if you have ever seen a parade. A parade is a procession. A wedding procession is a line of people walking because someone is getting married. The carving shows a procession of people walking to honor someone who has died.”

Program Philosophy

The content of Discussions4Learning has been developed to:

  • build overall vocabulary knowledge
  • expose students to sophisticated, academic vocabulary that they may use and hear used again and again in a variety of contexts over the course of the school year
  • prepare students for comprehending the texts—and tests—that they will face as they move from the decodable texts of the primary grades to the more challenging texts of the intermediate grades and beyond
  • improve students’ ability to use context clues to determine the meaning of new, challenging, and sophisticated vocabulary
  • provide, through engaging fine art and real-world photographs, authentic, meaningful contexts for introducing high-level, academic vocabulary
  • improve students’ ability to participate in meaningful, respectful discussions with peers
  • provide, through fine art and real-world photography, low-cost, in-school “field trips” that encourage and develop students’ natural curiosity
  • familiarize students with prefixes, suffixes, and root words that they can apply to new words as they encounter them

Instructional Model

The Discussions4Learning curriculum is built on this research-based instructional model:

  • Vocabulary introduced within meaningful, engaging contexts is more likely to be understood and retained by students;
  • Repeating each word in a complete context sentence helps all students focus on the target word, and helps reinforce understanding, clarify pronunciation, and develop appreciation for clear, concise expression;
  • Students given opportunities to use vocabulary words multiple times and in a variety of contexts as they discuss images are more likely to remember the words’ sounds and meanings;
  • Involving all students in end-of-lesson assessment maintains student engagement and makes it easier for teachers to check overall vocabulary understanding;
  • Repeating new and recently acquired vocabulary throughout the school day—as well as using sentence frames and semantic and syntactic variety—helps language learners acquire and retain new words.

Discussions4Learning is based on research that demonstrates that students who develop strong vocabulary skills go on to develop strong reading comprehension skills. The three main areas of study that contributed to the philosophy and development of Discussions4Learning are:

  • Rare words
  • Decontextualized talk
  • Semantic scaffolding