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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

Jessica Piper's picture

I am linking this to my blog as this is very pertinent to Language Arts and reading comprehension...I am implementing BAV in my school as we speak.

The best way to improve reading comprehension is through vocabulary development. I use the 6 steps to increase reading kiddos can decode, but have a hard time with comprehension because they lack so much vocabulary. I have a link below to my blog with a post about BAV and a sheet for students to keep track of their learning. I use it to measure how well they grasp their academic words (words like figurative language, connotation, sentence structures and the like in my Comm Arts class).

Thanks for your blog post-it is very timely=)

Erika Burton's picture
Erika Burton
Teacher, Founder of Stepping Stones Together ,and Educational Entrepreneur

Teaching children vocabulary is about exposing them to literacy within a context that is meaningful for them. This has to happen when introducing the reading process to a child. Everything taught in context makes children understand the interwoven skills necessary in successful literacy understanding and a love and appreciation for the art.
Erika Burton, Ph.D.
Stepping Stones Together, Founder

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

Thanks for sharing these great vocabulary tips. Too often, when the dictionary comes out - the thinking stops - and students busy themselves with copying the definition.

Your readers might like one of my posts on defining - "18 Literacy Strategies for Struggling Readers - Defining, Summarizing and Comparing"

Ms. A.'s picture

I'd like to add one of my strategies. I try to find tangible items that the kids and I can relate to. For example when I taught "silk" I wore a silk scarf every day and talked about how silk was not a material to make jeans. I also like to make-up songs to familiar tunes.

My latest one is to the tune of "If you're happy and you know it" The progressives are progressing very well clap clap - refrain - If you're progressing and you know it then clapping really shows it - the progressives are progressing very well - clap clap - Each student has to think of a progressive tense verb to add to the song as we go around and sing it.

Silly - maybe - but I teach 3rd grade - it's a silly world for us.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Thanks to all that have shared your thoughts on the importance of teaching and modeling reading strategies and advocating for reading with your students when it comes to vocabulary instruction.

I could always, always, always tell the students who were "serious readers" the very first week of school. How? By their writing and speaking. Typically, all that voracious reading translated into a richer vocabulary than their peers.



Julia Coley's picture

I appreciate all the comments and resources on teaching reading and vocabulary. For reading comprehansion strategies as well as expanding vocabulary, I recommend Deeper Reading, by Kelly Gallagher. I am looking for a good vocabulary software or online program that might be used to broaden exposure to vocabulary in short passages. This would be used as a fun activity to vary work in our learning center. Any suggestions?

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Thanks, Julia. Great resource -- Deeper Reading! I also found Reading Reasons, by Gallagher, to be an invaluable tool in my high school language arts classroom.


Rebecca Alber

SabrinaH's picture
4th grade Reading teacher

I agree that vocabulary development is essential to increased reading comprehension. The strategies that you shared will definitely be beneficial in my classroom. I found your article very intriguing since my school system is currently trying to implement new techniques to increase reading comprehension. I have struggled with finding new, fun, more effective ways to teach vocabulary to my students. The students do not learn from just copying definitions from a book or from the board. We have to find more tangible ways to connect the new vocabulary words with things that they are already familiar with. I see the techniques that you have shared as being beneficial to vocabulary development in my classroom.

For other educators that may be struggling with this same issue, I would like to share another strategy that I recently learned to enhance vocabulary skills. This strategy is similar to the one in the original blog since it also focuses on promoting tier II words. It also encourages greater fluency among readers and models the process that good readers go through while reading. You choose a book to read-aloud to students and choose Tier II words that you think they should know. You should be sure that these words can be related to Tier I words that they already know. You should only choose about 3 to 4 words to focus on for each lesson. Discuss the meanings and give examples of each word. As you read the book, students should use a thumbs-up signal when they hear one of the words that you introduced them to. Build in words that they already know for words that they may not know, instead of stopping to explain what each new word means. Whenever possible, use motion or body language to help convey the meaning of words. You should not show the illustrations in a book while reading; this forces the students to visualize while you are reading. Model the thinking process as you read and if you ask questions, they should relate to the comprehension strategy that you are discussing for the day.

I have recently implemented this strategy in my classroom and it has been very successful. The students love using the thumbs-up signal as I read and we call those words "WOW" words.

I hope this strategy is as beneficial to another teacher as it has been for me.

Best of luck to all,

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