Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Every Monday my seventh grade English teacher would have us copy a list of 25 words she'd written on the board. We'd then look up the dictionary definitions and copy those down. For homework, we'd re-write each word seven times.

Good, now you know it. Test on Friday and never for those 25 words to be seen again. Poof. Old school, yes. Mundane task, yes. Did it work? I don't remember. Probably not.

Copying definitions from the dictionary we would probably all agree is not an effective way to learn vocabulary. Passive learning hardly ever is. It's just often the way we learned, and as teachers, we sometimes fall back on using these ways when teaching rather than taking a good look at student data, the latest research, and then trying something new.

The truth is, and the research shows, students need multiple and various exposures to a word before they fully understand that word and can apply it. They need also to learn words in context, not stand alone lists that come and go each week. Of course the way we learn words in context, or implicitly, is by reading, then reading some more. (This is why every classroom should have a killer classroom library stocked full of high-interest, age appropriate books.)

Selecting Words

Ah, so many words, so little time. When choosing which words deserve special instructional time, we don't have to do it alone. One of the biggest mistakes we teachers make in vocabulary instruction is selecting all the words for the students and not giving them a say in the matter.

My first year teaching, before my tenth graders began reading Lord of the Flies, I went through every chapter and made lists of all the vocabulary words I thought they'd have trouble with, so that I could pre-teach them.

When I looked at those long lists, I began to freak out. How will I teach all these words, and still have class time for all the other things we need to do? First off, rather than waste my time compiling lists, I should have let the kids skim the text in chapter one and select their own words.

Then, here's what to do after the students pick their own words:

  • Ask each child to create a chart where he/she writes down words of choice, and rates each one as "know it," "sort of know it," or "don't know it at all."
  • Then, on the same paper, have them write a definition or "my guess on meaning" for the words they know and kind of know (No dictionaries!)

Before they turn in these pre-reading charts, be sure to emphasize this is not about "being right" but that they are providing you with information to guide next steps in class vocabulary instruction.

Read through them all and use the results as a formative assessment. This data will show you which words they know, those they have some understanding of, and those words that are completely foreign to them.

The kids have selected and rated the words, and now it's your turn.

Ranking Words

When considering which words need the most instructional attention, let's turn to Isabel Beck's practical way of categorizing vocabulary words into three tiers:

Tier One: Basic words that rarely require instructional focus (door, house, book).

Tier Two: Words that appear with high frequency, across a variety of domains, and are crucial when using mature, academic language (coincidence, reluctant, analysis).

Tier Three: Frequency of these words is quite low and often limited to specific fields of study (isotope, Reconstruction, Buddhism).

Beck suggests that students will benefit the most academically by focusing instruction on the tier two words (since these appear with much higher frequency than tier three words, and are used across domains). So, this is when you take a look at the pre-reading vocabulary charts your kids created and choose "kind of" and "don't know at all" words that you deem to be tier two words. Go ahead and select some content-specific words (tier three) but only those directly related to the chapter, article, short story, or whatever you are about to read.

You now have a vocabulary list. It's time to teach.

Teaching Words

If you haven't heard of him, I'd like to introduce Robert Marzano. This guy is pretty amazing, having spent countless hours observing students and teachers. An education researcher and teacher, he stresses that in all content areas, direct vocabulary instruction is essential and suggests six steps:

Step one: The teacher explains a new word, going beyond reciting its definition (tap into prior knowledge of students, use imagery).

Step two: Students restate or explain the new word in their own words (verbally and/or in writing).

Step three: Ask students to create a non-linguistic representation of the word (a picture, or symbolic representation).

Step four: Students engage in activities to deepen their knowledge of the new word (compare words, classify terms, write their own analogies and metaphors).

Step five: Students discuss the new word (pair-share, elbow partners).

Step six: Students periodically play games to review new vocabulary (Pyramid, Jeopardy, Telephone).

Marzano's six steps do something revolutionary to vocabulary learning: They make it fun. Students think about, talk about, apply, and play with new words. And Webster doesn't get a word in edgewise.

The Rationale

At this point, you might be thinking that there just isn't enough time for all this pre-reading word analysis, direct instruction of vocabulary, and game playing. (You have content to teach!) So, I'd like end with a few quotes for you to consider:

Vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school. -- W.B. Elley

Because each new word has to be studied and learned on its own, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning. So your learning speed, or pace, should increase as your vocabulary grows. -- Johnson O'Connor

We think with words, therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary. -- A. Draper and G. Moeller


Books to help you focus and fine-tune your vocabulary instruction:

Websites that share effective and engaging vocabulary activities:



Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (41)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Pooria's picture
English teacher

What i believe is that every single student should be dealt we individually which means they have different realms of learning. By recognizing wt they are fond of we could
unbelievably easily teach them something though difficult.
I teach some students via movies some by flash some by ... and wake their latent talent and after a while let them get the hang of this process themselves to know which way suits them more.

KAT's picture
ESL teacher and Literacy Coach

Teachers in history especially seem fearful of taking the time. In a mixed ESL / native speakers class, the teacher gets blindsided by second language learners who are bogged down by a lack of tier 1 word knowledge. The quotes at the end of the article will be helpful to guide our teachers... Less (content and more vocab) truly is more.

bob dobbs's picture

Vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school. -- W.B. Elley

Disagree 100% with this quote, having a large vocabulary does not equal intellectual ability. I've listened to more people use large and obscure words for no other reason then so they could say they were intellectuals.

This sound like more Common Core Hog Wash...

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I think every profession has their own jargon, and I remember attending my first education conference and not fully appreciating what "reflection" time was all about- sounded weird to me. Once I understood it, I got it. The same is true for every profession, and the more specialized you are, the more the vocab you use follows along.
What we have to try to emphasize for kids is that communicating with clarity, nuance and even developing a written "voice" often depends on the words you choose and what they mean, even beyond the dictionary definition, but in tone and usage.
I find that sometimes playing with language and words, like playing scrabble or words with friends with kids, and letting them use the word finder service to find new words, as long as they can write the definition of the word and use it in a sentence, is a fun way to introduce novel words. For the standard SAT type words, i think we also have to emphasize reading of everything from the newspaper to more complicated texts - even using Audible/audio books where kids then write down unfamiliar words sometimes ease the pain of picking up new vocabulary.
But let's be honest as well- you speak to different people using different vocabulary in order to clarify meaning and context, and having a great vocabulary is like having good manners- it's a powerful social tool every kid should have.

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

I think this method could probably work with more than just vocabulary. I worked with intervals as a music teacher and we would practice so-mi in so many different and fun ways it became second nature. Then, whenI introduced something new, they had already mastered so-mi and could take on the new note with ease!

Ryan Reed's picture
Ryan Reed
7/8th Grade Social Studies Teacher in Maine

I find my biggest challenge is that my students struggle to come up with nonverbal representations on their own. Something about their past has killed that creativity.

Beth Bursi's picture
Beth Bursi
9th grade teacher from Brighton, Tennessee

I personally have misconstrued the meanings of words by merely using context clues. I would caution teachers not to completely set aside the dictionaries!

VocabularySpellingCity Mayor's picture
VocabularySpellingCity Mayor
I'm the founder of, my contribution to education

I read your article with great interest and I'd like respectfully to raise a few questions. While I'm sorry that at school, you had to memorize 25 words randomly each week but I question whether this "straw man" is really how teachers are using words lists in US schools in 2014. At VocabularySpellingCity, we see millions of word lists posted by teachers and students. While we haven't had the resources to do a full study of them, I'd characterize the lists as organized along a few principles:
- phonics- or spelling-rule based. Many lists are built around, for instance, "Long Es" or any other rule important to practicing and mastering phonics principles that are key to decoding and reading. We see this at almost all grade levels, it seems there is a great deal of remediation.
- Student-created lists from their own challenges or reading.
- Academic Vocabulary. This has been really hot the last few years and it appears useful to help many less advantaged students to "crack the code" of what the teachers and tests are asking. None of this vocabulary, vital to academic success, appears learnable through much-prescribed solution of "read, read, read!"
- Content vocabulary. This is often used to introduce or review units and subjects. It seems especially effective as a routine review of material previously learned as a way to help lock concepts (often related to vocabulary) into long-term memory.
- Word morphology - Word lists are a great way for students to learn the meaning of prefixes and roots. Microphone next to hydrophone and hydroplane and telephone and telegraph....students learning these words are pretty likely to pick up on some patterns which they can use in the future. Looked at in isolation or as lists of roots and affixes, it's real hard for students to construct any feel or enthusiasm for Greek and Latin roots.
And so on.

One more point. The statistics and trends on getting students to read are so dismal that I'm skeptical that the key to academic success, vocabulary, should be entirely pinned to getting students to read vast amounts. I think word lists are a vital tool in a teachers' and students' arsenal and while the idea can be ridiculed if stupidly organized, I think that a constructive approach would be to ask why so many teachers and schools and curricula consider word lists to be a vital component of academic study. We believe that the vast majority of teacher do use word lists on a routine basis as a learning tool. We think they do it effectively with proper context, preparation, and followup.. We don't think they are being stupid and wasting their time nor their students' time.

John, Founder and Mayor of (and the app too)

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.