Techniques for Teaching Vocabulary to Elementary Students | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

Pam Peterson's picture
Pam Peterson
Kindergarten Teacher

[quote]I haven't been teaching long but I started out as a Kindergarten teacher and even here vocabulary needs to be worked on and enhanced. I tried a technique of reading a book a day and introducing at least three words. I knew that if I did that each day I would be doing exactly like you, Gaetan, are stressing is so important. It is important to plant that seed. They may not leave me this year remembering all those words but I tried to review with them the new words throughout the year at different times to help them at least recognize them when they hear the words in the future. I stressed to my students'parents as well to break down vocabulary to their children. When they ask what does that mean or even if they don't and you know that you are saying a word that is over their head, go ahead and tell them what it means. Doing this in the early years of their lives is a great way to increase vocabulary. I believe that reading everyday will help my students learn to love reading. I tried to teach them that if they did not understand a word that someone said to them to ask them "What that word means?" Thanks for all your advice. I feel like I am making a difference with vocabulary in my classroom when I hear other people are doing the same tactics.[/quote]

So many great points to the vocabulary. I agree don't ever stop reading aloud, morning messages are so incredible to build knowledge etc. We use an actual vocabulary program that introduces 6 words for a week, a great story with lots of visuals, a card with words, and pictures. We start it half way through the Kindergarten year. Then we tag eachother, just touching, when we hear a vocabulary word. Sometimes I tally mark on my SMART BOARD when I hear a vocabulary word, then we see which words we are incorporating in our daily language. It is a great program.
Wordly Wise.


Jim's picture
6th Grade Math Teacher

I read to my students a couple times a week and they absolutely love it! It is important for students to be read to and hear proper expression and fluency from a teacher. I always take time to ask a few questions to check their listening comprehension before and after reading. Usually when I stop reading, they beg me to read a couple more pages. I have also found that by pairing up students to read together has helped with fluency of vocabulary.

As for additional vocabulary help, we have 8 new vocabulary words per week to learn. We do numerous activities to learn these words such as; vocab charades, word walls, graphic organizers, vocab stories, etc. I usually pick the words for each week, but occasionally students will bring me words they don't quite understand and I will add them to our list for the following week.

alisha's picture
Elementary School teacher from Fort Lauderdale, FL

The information here is great! I especially agree with Gaetan on always doing a read aloud with your students. We also have a program where students learn new vocabulary words on a weekly basis. We introduce them on Monday through a story. Tuesday through Friday lessons involve ways of incorporating the vocabulary words in new ways, including, in some cases, the antonym of some words.
It is a nice feeling of accomplishment when you start to hear the students using these words either in writing or verbally.
In our monthly parent newsletters, we talk about the importance of parents talking to children. In the past we have even sent home a paper listing the words from each subject that their child will be learning for the quarter. We encouraged the parents to use these terms whenever they talked to their child. It was great.

April's picture

I really enjoyed reading your techniques for teaching vocabulary. I teach in a high poverty county and this is one area in which our students are lacking. Most often they do come to school with low vocabulary skills and little background knowledge because of a lack of communication in the home. My colleagues and I often discuss this problem in our professional learning communities. I am looking forward to sharing your ideas with my group.

Sam Garcia's picture
Sam Garcia
Head Start Preschool teacher, southside Chicago

I too have experienced the same feeling Gaetan describes at workshops. I spend three hours at a workshop and leave with nothing except some facts how students learn about various topics best, some photocopied articles that I rarely look at again, and some silly games or songs. I end up leaving angry and frustrated that I have wasted a morning away from my classroom and brought nothing back that actually helps address the concerns in my classroom.

As a preschool teacher I am working with very young children who are rapidly expanding their vocabulary every day. During this time in their life it is essential that they hear and use as many new words as possible. It has been proven time and time again that early language skills in preschool translate into reading and comprehension skills later in elementary school. I had students at the start of the school year who were four and five years old but couldn't even put together a three word sentence, let alone communicate what they need, feel or think. Although some of these children have begun talking more it has come almost entirely through them being in our classroom and hearing rich vocabulary throughout our school day.

Many of the parents of these children work long hours and don't spend much time with their child except feeding them and putting them to bed. I absolutely believe that constant exposure to language through reading, classroom discussions, morning messages and simply conversation can create the foundation for strong vocabulary and reading skills. It doesn't have to come through spelling tests and memorization, in fact these approaches leave children bored, unengaged and disconnected from their learning. These are all of the things we should want to avoid not reinforce. Read teachers seem to get all of this... why aren't our voices ever heard?

ChrisM's picture
social studies teacher from MN

Great Blog! I love some of the topics you bring up and will try to incorporate a few of those ideas in my own classroom. I think it is interesting that you do not give a fill in the blank vocabulary test. I agree with your reasoning why you do now. I never thought of it that way though. Reading to students has been very beneficial for me. Students typicall love when I read the first book of any sequal. I love it when I see the students reading the next book. Model reading is important for the students as well as choral reading have proven to be effective for me.
Thanks for the great advice!

Jen's picture
Curriculum Coordinator - Southwest MN

Your blog pin-pointed fantastic ways to stretch and deepen kids' understanding of words. For students that must learn the content vocabulary as well as English (if it isn't spoken in the home), these are great techniques to model and stimulate thinking them - for any student. I've always worked hard, when I was a classroom teacher, to create individualized spelling lists. I truly felt students should first master the spelling of fundamental words as well as richer ones that they tend to enjoy using in their writing again and again. The lists and work become more pertinent and real - so it was wonderful to read that you are advocating that as well. It certainly takes more time, but it is so worth it. Marzano's "Building Background Knowledge" mirrored what you covered. Initial exposure to new words must come from the adults in children's lives. Do not send them off to the dictionary to search for a word's definition, but provide them a connecting thread to their own background so that it can become part of their speaking, listening, and written language. I also enjoyed that your #1 tip for expanding vocabulary was to 'Read Aloud'! It is THE leading practice for so many strategies students need to become literate. Thank you for the blog - great information!

kim's picture

I previously worked at a private school with upper middle class families to rich families. I never even thought about how important teaching vocabulary was until I was placed in a public school with an 86% free and reduce lunch rate. A completly different population and a different world! I couldn't believe how low the oral language is at this school. Some of my second graders are at the same level as my three year old. These tips are GREAT! Conversation is the key, even calling the bathroom, restroom and washroom to introduce new words with the same concept to the kids is important. Thanks for sharing this information with us!

Renee''s picture

Techniques for Teaching Vocabulary to Elementary Students

When teaching vocabulary, as the author says Do Not Force It. There are many ways to teach vocabulary. One way that I like best is to help the students use vocabulary in a natural setting. I like to create an authentic atmosphere in which to learn. Teaching vocabulary in a setting in which the students will use the vocabulary makes it more meaningful to them. When learning is meaningful, students will most likely remember the situation and use it in their everyday lives. Part of this kind of learning does involve modeling and asking them questions to inspire more learning. I believe that my experience as a Remedial Reading Teacher has helped me recognize how important it is to read out loud to the students and have them read outloud as well. Reading out loud uses 3 of the 5 senses-seeing, hearing and doing. The more senses you use to learn, the easier it is to learn. I have also used Choral Reading to learn vocabulary. It is fun and it has a rhythm. Life has a rhythm as well. Using these methods along with teaching context clues, teaching analogies using the dictionary and writing sentences has been a successful way to teach my students vocabulary. My students always do very well on the State Standard Achievement Tests.

kim's picture

I teach Title I reading and many times I'm asked to give students with low oral language or ELL students tests. Many times as I'm reading the test I am aware that they do not know what many of the words mean, that I'm reading. I was wondering how you went about changing the tests to fit their needs better. Do you use these terms and vocabulary words deeply in conversation as you teach? Do you just differentiate their tests? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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