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Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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

aradhna's picture

Dear Erika,
I truly agree with you. Vocabulary definitely is the first thing that a child learns before he/she is able to read. Knowing the vocabulary is the stepping stone to their reading. I am teaching in a Singapore based school in China where kids L1 language is Chinese. It is very hard for me to make them learn thematic vocabulary, however, I try to incorporate some games like:
1.Bang the word: I call two Ss near a table or a mat where I have placed all the thematic vocabulary. Now, when I speak the word Ss need to bang the word and reciprocate it by speaking. Who so ever gets the maximum points win. I do it individually or in a team.
2. Missing word: I review all the thematic vocabulary two to three times. Then I take out one flash card and the Ss need to tell me which one is missing. This creates lot of fun in the classroom and I get the attention of all the students.
I try to review all the vocabulary words as and when I have a class with them. Else their Chinese teacher do all the follow-up.

aradhna's picture

Dear Rebecca,

Thanks for your informative post. I too incorporate some games in my classroom. Well, being a CELTA pass out I could tell that you have the same approach as my CELTA teachers. I think reviewing is very important. Teachers jump to new context without reviewing the old stuff, this creates loads of confusion for the learners and then think the new information is all waste because we never review or use them in our daily lives.

eboreman's picture

I had the same experience with copying vocabulary definitions when I was in school and did not remember any of the words when it came time to use them. Now, I am a second grade teacher at a school that serves a high percentage of students living in poverty (almost 90%). I also teach a high percentage of ESOL students. I use Isabel Beck's vocabulary routines complete with gestures and pictures, and most times have great success with it. I did find the idea of having students list vocabulary words that they are not familiar with rather eye-opening however. Many of my ESOL students in particular are rather fluent in English socially and frequently have conversations with myself and their peers. It is easy to assume when students can communicate so well that they "know" or "understand" a word when they really have no idea what it means. Why not ask the students which words are causing them trouble instead of trying to predict or guess? While I might have to read through the text first for my second graders before they can list words, especially in the Fall, I feel that list-making would still be a worthwhile task. After the lists are made, I will be able to get a picture of some common trends that will help me select words that will be the most beneficial. Thanks for the idea!

Ms. A.'s picture

Creating context for students who do not have prior knowledge to link to the new knowledge is valuable. This is especially true when working with Special needs and English language learners.

Ms. A. Teaches
English Language Learning
Fun, Easy, and FREE!

Nick's picture

I have been using the vocabulary that is associated in our Learning Targets so the students will start to understand what theyare truly trying to reach

dmamone12's picture
6th grade English Language Arts teacher in the Bronx, New York

One of my colleagues shared this idea with me. Label a chart Level 1/Level 10. Words that go under the Level 1 column are words students are familiar with, general or boring. A synonym for the Level 1 word is placed next to it and under the Level 10 column. The words under the Level 10 column represent stronger, richer, more grade-appropriate vocabulary. For example, the chart in my room looks like this: alone/solitary, start/commence, destroy/annihilate, nice/marvel, agree/concur, hate/despise, careful/painstaking. It helps kids learn new words, the semantics and connotations behind words and using more exact language. Plus, they love adding to the chart when they make connections between new words they learn and words they already know.

Ragav Satish's picture

I'm commenting on an article that is a year old but I just stumbled on this today.
Vocabulary mastery is developed by a combination of deep encoding, nuanced instruction and multiple exposures.

If you change the teaching paradigm to "how is my student really going to remember this?" surprising pedagogical styles follow. It becomes obvious that a multi-modal teaching style is required to develop redundant memory pathways. It also follows that periodic reinforcement is absolutely required.

See these word pages at Membean to get a brief glimpse of what is possible with this teaching style.

Michael K's picture
Michael K
8th grade math teacher, Norfolk, VA

Thanks for sharing this article on effective vocabulary instruction. I teach Geometry to 8th graders and vocabulary can be a huge obstacle for the students. I rely heavily on the Marzano strategies you mentioned, particularly direct instruction and non-linguisitic representation. It is always a challenge because I know vocabulary is critically important but we also need to spend a great deal of time on the application of skills. I find that when students aren't willing to put time into the vocabulary development on their own it is a struggle for them all year. Any tips on getting students excited about vocabulary?

ksharp's picture
Speech Pathologist from Rochester, New York

I thought both of the experts and their strategies mentioned in this article were fantastic! I love Isabel Beck's idea of categorizing vocabulary into 3 tiers, as this makes it simple to identify which words are of most need and importance. As for Robert Marzano's 6 steps, I have used three of his steps with my students and have found success with vocabulary comprehension and retention. Adding steps 4-6 (although 5 is usually difficult with having small groups of 2-3) will just deepen my students' knowledge and long term retention of target vocabulary. I can't wait to use these strategies and hope to share good news with results!

Alisa's picture
Elementary Teacher from Arkansas

I agree that students need various ways to learn. Also, teachers need to find meaningful and fun ways to teach students.

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