Techniques for Teaching Vocabulary to Elementary Students | Edutopia
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Updated 01/2014

So, I'm sitting in a workshop on vocabulary development listening to a bunch of research as to why kids lack the language to effectively comprehend and communicate. The largest factor (found by this specific research) that determines a child's vocabulary cache is . . . (Drum roll) . . . In-home communication between adult and child using rich language. No talking, no vocabulary -- makes sense, right? The more you hear it, the more likely you're going to use it, the more you're going to "own" it. It's the purest form of contextual usage. It's life. This makes total sense to me. As a teacher, writer, and father of a three-year-old, I'm always exposing my son to strong, healthy vocabulary. It's not rocket science; it just takes some extra effort to recognize those special times to work on vocabulary (I'm not using the term "teachable moment" here because working on vocabulary really shouldn't seem like a formal lesson; it should be as natural as a friendly conversation).

Let me give you a play-by-play to give you a sense of how I do it at home.

  • Setting: Playing in the backyard.
  • Max: It's getting hot.
  • Me: Yes, the temperature is going up.
  • Max: It sure is.
  • Me: The temperature is increasing.
  • Max. Yup.
  • Me: Yeah, it's rising.

Now, Max is three and some change, so he's not really absorbing all of the words. I know that. I don't expect him to remember the words right away. I'm planting "word seeds" to grow over the years. He will eventually know that "going up," increasing, and rising are all related. Vocabulary development doesn't happen overnight; with food and water, vocabulary will slowly grow like a big, old oak tree reaching up to the sky.

DON'T: Force It

I left the workshop thinking about how I personally teach vocabulary without making it seem like I'm forcing new words into the absorbent brain tissue of my students. The key to "real-life-like" vocabulary instruction is not to force it. Let it happen, my friend (like a friendly conversation). Avoid fill-in-the-blank worksheets, matching, and vocabulary quizzes at all costs. Forcing students to quantify their learning in a quiz or test sets the brain to stun, not kill (Stun= regurgitated-on-paper-never-to-be-used-again. Kill= embedded-and-owned.). In his book, On Writing, Stephen King states that vocabulary should be on the top shelf of your writing toolbox, and "Don't make a conscious effort to improve it." To the beginning writer and teacher that might sound weird. However, Stevie continues with, "You'll be doing that (improving vocabulary) while you're reading." Ah-ha! Now we're talking; now we're learning new vocabulary on the go, in the field, and LIVE (naturally). But how do we get kids to do that? Patience.

DO: Model Inquisitiveness

Teaching kids new words and definitions is very important, but what's more crucial to ongoing vocabulary development is modeling when and how to be inquisitive about words. Here are a few "moments" that I use to model how to naturally investigate words and directly teach them as well.

1. Read Aloud: I read out loud to my students every day. Please, oh please, don't ever cut this from your daily routine. It's so important for kids to hear how words and punctuation intertwine to create a coherent story. This is a great time to discuss the word choice of the author, the good and the bad. I like to use the think-aloud technique to show students how I mentally investigate words. Gaetan's mental thoughts: wait a minute -- what does that word mean? Re-read the sentence..okay it could be... but maybe not. Do I see a pre-fix or a suffix? I'm sure you get the idea. When parents ask me how they can help their child improve their reading, I tell them to investigate a word a day that appears in their reading homework and plant the "word seed."

2. Reading/Writing Conferences: Individual reading/writing conferences are the epitome of differentiation. This is where a teacher can really access student needs and meet them at their wordsmith level. Along with discussing words, for those of you who need something concrete and documented, "the list" is always a good idea. I have my students create individualized spelling lists and vocabulary lists in their writing journal, which are updated during conferencing or just on-the-go. I also create class lists of good words, such as "Buff Verbs" and "Instead of Said" words (speaker tags). It's always nice to have a reference.

3. Poetry: Almost everything a student needs to know about reading and writing can be taught through poetry. The poem is very versatile: its length is less intimidating than a short story or novel; poets usually use strong words (they have to because of the length); the definitions of the words can usually be deciphered through context clues; and, although poems are awesome fun to use, make sure you use age-appropriate poetry. We all know poets can be "out there." Sometimes after reading a difficult poem we all kind of just stare and "Dig the Heaviness." That's really all we can do. I try to "unpack" at least two to three poems a week, digging out some good words to discuss.

4. Morning Message: If you are into the responsive classroom thing, you can definitely use the morning message to increase the student word power. When I interned at the Nancie Atwell Center for Teaching and Learning (read my blog of the experience: Five Practices that Transformed My Teaching), I was amazed at how Ted DeMille, 1st/2nd grade teacher, taught with the morning message. He started with phonics and ended with comprehension. It was quite amazing.

Contextual vocabulary acquisition is the most effective way to get words to stick, but it takes time and patience. Just think about how toddlers learn to speak. They learn from adults, brothers and sisters, and their peers over several years of listening. They don't learn from worksheets or memorizing word lists. Their word acquisition begins by listening, and then moves to learning from books and conversation. Although teachers will never make up for lost home-life vocabulary development, they can make a huge impact on their students by consistently planting those "word seeds" in a natural, conversational way.

Comments (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Debbie's picture
3rd grade teacher, Indiana

Your blog caught my attention because I have a 2 year old son and I am very conscious of using good vocabulary with him. I am amazed at how easily and quickly he uses those rich words! I love your ideas of how to encorporate vocabulary into my teaching without having to create a full blown lesson out of it. Good suggestions!

Brenda's picture
Multi-age Second and third Grade Teacher from Minnesota

I agree 100% with your ideas-and put them into practice myself. The problem I keep bumping into as many of us are is this: we teach in authentic ways that engage our students and prepare them for the world out side of school. Then we test...unfortunately our authentic ways don't show up testing situations. How do you find balance between what you know is best and what prepares students to test?

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Balance is an improv job and an ethical decision made on the go. The new testing world is a crazy one that's leading the US into a future of non-thinking consumers. And teachers are being pushed and threatened to become the puppet minions that will make testing companies rich and human beings not so smart. I can't really tell you how to balance your instruction. However, I do keep in mind that for every lesson or activity or whatever I do in the name of testing, I double or triple my efforts with real instruction. I also make sure my students know that the testing world is a genre of study and it's not the real world.

I say go with the gut. What do you value? What do you want to accomplish as a teacher?

Thanks for the comment.


Kristine's picture
Elementary Teacher from Missouri

Your personal experiences with your son was very interesting to me. I enjoyed how you showed an example of how you teach your child vocabulary. The different ways to incorporate vocabulary into every day life also was interesting to me.There are many connections between what I have learned and studied and your blog post. Vocabulary can be taught at many different levels and incorporated into daily life. Vocabulary can be taught in every educational area. I thought that the techniques that you included were very beneficial to students. Students need to hear and use new vocabulary daily.
Thank you for the sharing these different techniques.

Helen Fernandez's picture
Helen Fernandez
ELL teacher

I agree that teaching rich vocabulary through every day conversation is important, however, as an ELL teacher I have found that it is important to be explicit when teaching vocabulary. Students who are learning English need to explore, play and manipulate words often and with purpose. Research tells us that students need to be exposed to a word multiple times before they can even remember it or even use it. They also may not have the exposure to rich (English) language at home and therefore need more support. Academic language is especially challenging for Ell's. These words may not come up in everyday language so explicit teaching is necessary,

Jackie's picture

Thanks for your blog. It's so true what you said about those "special times" of integrating vocabulary with your child(children). The more they hear varied vocabulary the more they will learn. I've seen this to be true with my own 4 year old as she is using and experimenting with language. I would also carry this over to my English Language Learners in the classroom. They have twice the battle non-ELLs have with having to learn new vocabulary and new content. The more exposure to vocabulary throughout read-alouds, conferencing, poetry and the morning message are excellent ways to do this.

Donna's picture
K-12 ESL teacher in the Hudson Valley, New York

I know, that is so bad, but I couldn't help myself. I liked your blog and your descriptions of what you do to promote vocabulary. I have always been a reader and brought up two daughters to value reading. I read to them and when they were old enough, they read to me. I now have a 3 year old grandson and my daughter is surrounding him with books, videos, puzzles, and other language rich materials. He already has so many books, his father had to build a bookshelf just for his books!He is read to. Not only does he get the learning experience, he associates reading with a pleasant and comfortable time with his parents. I try to bring this enthusiasm and pleasant feeling into my lessons with my ESL students. Too often they only see the difficulty of reading in another language. I try to make it an experience they enjoy. I point out that reading is like a treasure chest full of wonderful treasure and they can unlock it once they have the keys. It is also important that while reading with ESL students it is important to check for understanding often during the reading. They might need more background building for something that we learn at home in the first 4-5 years of our lives.Thanks for your descriptions of your methods.

karen's picture

I can relate completely to your post. As and ELL educator in a low income school in Florida, vocabulary acquisition is a major problem, not just for my ELL students, but everyone. I believe too many kids today only hear directives from adults. "Do this, get that, go here..." Whether it is time or stress I do not know, but it is failing our kids. I agree kids need authentic communnication through read alouds and collaborative work to build vocabulary. Isabelle Beck uses hand motions to tie into vocabualry terms, which is a great idea, but if educators are using vocabulary as a daily curriculum with no connection to their learning, it can be a waste of time.

Jennifer's picture
5th grade reading teacher in Clearwater, FL

I have an eight year old son who just last year took his first round of standardized state tests. I am happy to say that he did not miss any questions in the vocabulary section. I frequently have other parents and teachers tell me what an enhanced vocabulary he has - that I must work with him at home. I don't "work" with him; I have conversations with him. When he was younger, I did exactly what you are doing for your son.

As a teacher of 18 years, I have discovered that read aloud is the single most important part of my day. It is a time to build classroom culture and respect, reading and writing skills, social and conversational skills. I frequently turn students from "I don't like reading" to "Oh no! Don't stop reading!" I credit most of this to read aloud. As you stated, it is a great time to model thinking strategies for figuring out those tough wordsas well as many other things.

I recently heard a suggestion that I can't wait to try. Someone told me that they have the students create a vocabulary time line. The purpose is to show shades of meaning. Students come up with or research words that convey the same idea. For example, whisper to yell. The words are placed on a line and any other words in the spectrum are placed on the line where the students think they belong. I think I will give the students a new set each week and see how far they can take it.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed reading and connecting with it.

Claudia Garcia-Gutierrez's picture
Claudia Garcia-Gutierrez
Third grade English reading teacher from Palm Beach County, Florida

I have a 10 year old son, who I also did and do what you are doing with yours. He sometimes would blow my mind when he used words that were above his grade level such as atrocity or sanctuary. When ever I hear him use rich words I always ask him what does it mean or give me a synonym just to check his understanding of the word.
I also agree that the most important part of my day is the read aloud, not only do I use it to introduce my students to different types of books and genres, but to feed in those vocabulary words. I also do it when I'm having conversations with them during lunch.
One thing I have notice is that my students not only need the selected vocabulary from the story we are reading but other words that the publisher assumes they know. In order to assist with this problem I am always modeling using context clues or doing think alouds. I also tell them if you don't know the word meaning look it up if not in our classroom dictionaries ask me.

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