The Rule of 7 and Vocabulary

The Rule of 7

If teaching a new process or list of facts, summarising a topic or giving directions, follow the rule of 7.

Use no more than 7 steps, facts, points or items. 

What does this mean for you in the classroom?

Firstly, that summary that was more than 5 points, which you then expanded to 10 points… go and see if you can fit it into 7.  Students are far more likely to remember the list if it is between 3 and 7 points.  Any more than 7 and the kids will feel overloaded and confused.  7 is plenty.  

Secondly, the process you want the kids to follow, should be 7 steps or less.  Consider the main steps when breaking it down.  If the process has more than 7 steps… maybe it should be 2 processes, each with less steps.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Albert Einstein

Vocabulary Strategies that Work

Shrunken Definitions are important for students to learn contextual words.  We need to assist students to come up with their own definitions for vocabulary words.  When providing them with definitions we need to follow the rule of 7.  Wilfong (2012) suggests that when providing students with a definition for new vocabulary it should be 3-5 words in length.  When asking students to write their own definition Wilfong (2012) suggests giving the students the same parameters (i.e. no more than 5 words).

Building Background is providing students with a truncated (shrunken) definition and a simple visual cue prior to reading.  When they encounter the word, they know what it is and have a basic idea of what it means in the relevant context. This saves time and effort during reading.  When students read a passage with unfamiliar vocabulary, they might turn to a dictionary or other reference to try and gain understanding and make meaning of the text.  However, the reference material can present its own set of complications with meaning and before you know it, an eager mind has become a frustrated one.   So, providing a simple definition for easy reference can both prevent and solve a great deal of anguish during and after reading.

Something to Try

vocab_def_vis table

1. Draw the table above. Choose a lesson/ class that you are planning to teach soon.  What is the text that your students will be using or accessing?  What are the words that your students will need to know in order to understand the text?  List them under “Vocabulary Word”. 

2. Hopefully some of these words are already familiar to your students.  Most teachers do this step automatically, but just in case.  Review the list and cross out all the words that your students would already be familiar with (either because the class has studied them with you before or you know they have learned it in another class).  

3. Using Wilfong’s guidelines for Building Background, complete the second column by writing a truncated definition (3-5 words) for each word on your list.  

4. Remember the other part of Building Background is including a visual cue or symbol to assist students with understanding and remembering the word.  In the final column, sketch a symbol or visual that you will use.

A Final Thought

I asked my Literacy Team to complete the activity above during our monthly meeting this week.  They rather enjoyed it.  One of the members commented that successful shrinking of a definition to so few words requires serious thought into word choice.  When you only have 3 words, which three words best encompass the meaning you want your students to learn? 

Remember to keep it simple.  Consider the context in which you want your students to access the word.  Stick to the correct meaning for the correct context and choose your words carefully.  


The Literacy Coach



Wilfong, L. G. (2012). Vocabulary Strategies that Work: Do this-Not that! Eye on Education, USA.

vocab strategies that work cover


3 thoughts on “The Rule of 7 and Vocabulary

  1. Hey Sterlinghurley, I’m glad you are willing to give this activity a go and I look forward to hearing your feedback. I am in the process of selecting vocabulary and truncating the definitions for my next teaching unit.


  2. Pingback: Rule of Seven: Lesson Planning Challenge | Mel the Literacy Coach

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