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

David Ginsburg's picture
David Ginsburg
Instructional Coach, Leadership Coach, Math Specialist

Great stuff, Gaetan. And I couldn't agree more with your point about contextual vocab acquisition. Check out my post, The Ultimate Vocabulary Strategy: Talking to Kids Like You Talk to Adults
for more on that--it includes an anecdote involving my daughter that I was reminded of when I read your sample conversation with your son. Thanks!

Barb's picture

Some of research into vocabulary learning shows that direct vocabulary instruction is worthwhile, while other research points to success with methods similar to the author's. The best approach, in my long experience, is a blend of both the author's approach with the direct instruction approach. The body of work of Beck and McKeown shows the positive effects of vocabulary instruction. William E. Nagy's writings support wide reading as well as methods like those discussed by the author. The effective teacher knows how to blend these approaches for the best results with the particular students of a particular school year. As always, it's a balancing act!

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

@Jason Thanks for the kind words. Usually when I write something, it begins with anger. That workshop I attended left all those teachers with nothing to do. A bunch of research and a few gimmicky games. Nothing real. That's what sparked my blog. Liked the link as well. Thanks.

@David--Kids are great on which to experiment, right? But it's real life stuff that should be school. Just the other day Max and I were putting out a rain gauge. He asked, "What are we doing?" I said, "We are collecting and measuring rain. We're doing science." He replied, "Like school?" I'm glad he's doing science in school, but i felt that he was surprised were "doing school" at home. It was weird to him. The disconnect begins early and teachers alone cannot break down the walls. Parents really need to step up. I'm nervous about all of this talk about how teachers will "fix" everything in the classroom. The Feds are ignoring poverty, nutrition, mental state, etc... I hope this "relying" on teachers doesn't lessen parent involvement.

Jason Kornoely's picture
Jason Kornoely
Elementary Teacher

First of all, Gaetan, I've been super jealous of you ever since you spent a week at Nancie Atwell's Center for Teaching and Learning. Second of all, you have written a wonderful piece that couldn't have been more timely for me professionally. Edutopia Euphoria! Thank you! I've blogged about vocabulary building based on research done by Debra Pickering. Check it out.

P.S. I dig your prose.

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

Spelling is concrete and easy for parents and teachers to see and grade. That's why it's the focus of many parent conversations, writing conferences, and curriculum meetings. Right now in my district we are searching for a spelling program. Crazy, right? there are two ways to spell...using phonics rules (which is like playing a game of mousetrap) and sight words. There you go, program. Spelling is a part of literacy. Let me's a part of literacy. It's not literacy. Yet, because of its concreteness, it still nags.

I've run the gamut on spelling. I've quit giving spelling tests because, in my opinion, they are a waste of time. (Yes, parents complain) Most of the time in my classroom students choose the words they want to study. I call it a word list. Its vocab and spelling together. The students generate this list from words they commonly misspell, which are written on their "Spell it, Dude." list and from words we find in reading and use in writing. if the kid needs phonics I will touch upon it in a reading or writing conference. I've added a little twist to the word list from what i saw at the atwell school. at the end of the week students give each other word list spelling challenges. If a student misspells a word, it needs to stay on the list for the following week. The words follows them until they spell it right.

The truth is that there's not one golden spelling program. Every student learns how to spell in different ways and at different speeds. That's why it useless to buy a spelling program. Differentiate in the reading/writing workshop. trust the teacher in the classroom.

Shelley Geisreiter's picture
Shelley Geisreiter
Sixth Grade Classroom Teacher

I teach fifth/sixth grade and continue to read aloud to my students every day. It is validating to hear that others treasure it also. Sometimes I think that perhaps my students think read-aloud is "lame" (to use their words), but I tell them it's my favorite time of the day (which it is) and that I love sharing my favorite stories with them (which I do). I especially love it when I see them checking the book out from the library to re-read when I've finished. It nothing else, I'm helping to foster the love of reading. Thanks for the great advice!

Shelley Geisreiter's picture
Shelley Geisreiter
Sixth Grade Classroom Teacher

I teach fifth/sixth grade and continue to read aloud to my students every day. It is validating to hear that others treasure it also. Sometimes I think that perhaps my students think read-aloud is "lame" (to use their words), but I tell them it's my favorite time of the day (which it is) and that I love sharing my favorite stories with them (which I do). I especially love it when I see them checking the book out from the library to re-read when I've finished. It nothing else, I'm helping to foster the love of reading. Thanks for the great advice!


Wow!! This information was right on about spelling. We have been going in circles and circles about traditional spelling list and meaningful and useful spelling list. I just do not see the point of having the spelling list given on Monday and test on Friday and the students can't spell the word the following Monday in their writings. Useless!!! Thanks for this information. I am going to pass this on for sure.

Camela Boatright's picture
Camela Boatright
Kindergarten Teacher from Hazlehurst, Georgia

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.

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